Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lonely French Men

I figured that I would like Gregoire Bouiller’s The Mystery Guest but I was surprised by how much I liked it. I read the whole thing--it’s a short book--on the short flight from New York to Indiana a couple weeks ago.

To my surprise, I’ve read a nice little chunk of contemporary French fiction (in translation) in the past few years--Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, Toussaint’s Television, Constant’s White Spirit (these last two were LBC picks)--and The Mystery Guest shares with each of these texts an absurdist perspective on a very lonely narcissist. (And here, Constant’s book, by a woman and set in Africa, seems to separate itself from the pack a bit.)

This interest in the intensely self-absorbed and desperately lonely man put me in mind of Beckett, especially the Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (also known as The Unreadable). And I wonder if Beckett made this trend or, as I suspect and Montaigne and Moliere would seem to confirm, simply found a spiritual home in a certain train--or rut--of French thought.

It is a rut, but a very comfortable and happy one to rumble along in for a while.

I suspected I’d like it since Mark Sarvas was featuring it and I tend to like the books he likes. But when a student told me that I could read it in a flash and that it had a big Woolfian connection, I grabbed it off the pile.

The book’s premise is absurd and, apparently, true. (This is as much memoir as novel.): a performance artist throws herself a birthday party every year. She invites one person for each year she’s lived and then appoints one friend to invite a mystery guest who symbolizes the year to come.

Our hero is that guest.

He fields the call from the woman who left him heartbroken years ago. When she calls, on the very day that French historian and anthropologist Michel Leiris dies, he feels that fate has handed him a golden sign.

The narcissism and absurdity of finding significance in this random coincidence--a coincidence that, he later discovers, has no meaning at all for his ex--captures the sense of humor here and makes this my favorite of the Beigbeder-Toussaint-Bouillier trio. But how close to the center of contemporary French literature have my travels taken me? How eccentric is my sample?


Anonymous said...

Your mention of The Mystery Guest vaguely rang a bell, then I recalled watching the trailer months ago...

It made me laugh, but it did seem entirely too absurd, especially when he says the guests "look like little bits of bread." I wasn't sure what to make of that!

But maybe I'll check it out, since you recommend it.

Bud Parr said...

That's funny - I saw the trailer too and was completely turned off by it

brd said...

"The book’s premise is absurd and, apparently, true."

I find this statement to be fairly descriptive of life. The older I get the more absurd life as I perceive it gets. I'm not saying that it isn't meaningful, just absurd sometimes.

Unknown said...

Yes--the absurdity of it is the truest thing. That's what fiction writers capture, I think.

Jessica & Bud, the trailer is really goofy. The book is actually an elegant and sweet and funny and absurd little geste. I thought it totally worthwhile. It's got a lot to say that's quite poignant about how one gets over a broken heart, how one gets work done, figures out how to have a "project."