Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The Birthday Party, by Laurent Mauvignier

Transit Books, 2023
originally published 2020 as Histoires de la nuit 
translated by  Daniel Levin Becker
439 pp

I've described this book to friends as a demanding novel due to its style, but once you get used to the way it is written, it becomes unputdownable. It's also a story that eventually began to  fry my nerves until the last page, and I have to admit that more than once I was beyond tempted to just take a peek to make sure everything came out okay.  I didn't, of course, but I really, REALLY wanted to.  

There are three houses in the small hamlet of La Bassée, two of which are occupied and one of which is empty and on the market waiting to be sold.  In one of these houses is the family Bergogne, consisting of Patrice, Marion and their daughter Ida; in the other is their older neighbor, Christine, who lives alone with her dog.  Patrice has carried on the same life he grew up with and had kept the family farm  "in the hands of Bergogne, as his father had wanted."  Marion works in a print shop in the nearby town and Christine is an artist, having left behind "the Parisian life" to able to "do some real work."   

The relationship between Marion and Patrice is somewhat strained; he is overweight, a meek and mild sort of man,  holding in check the violence that he knows is inside of him, the same that he witnessed in his father.  She is younger and more energetic, impulsive; she likes to go out dancing often with her friends,  which makes him feel as though she "prefers their company to his." He never asks about her outings, while she never volunteers anything about them or much else, really.   He does "everything in his power to be pleasant" with her, always worrying about things, especially that she could "leave on a whim" if he did say something.  It's a lonely existence for the two, relieved mainly by the presence of Ida, whom they both love very much and who stays at Christine's house after school while her parents are working.   Marion and Christine don't get along very well, with Christine making sarcastic digs at Marion which Marion answers with silence.   But it's Marion's 40th birthday, and Christine, Ida, and Patrice are preparing for a party he's giving her. While Patrice's invitation to her two work friends is a surprise that Marion knows nothing about, what transpires that evening will be completely unexpected by everyone.

The story covers two days in the lives of these people; in the first, the author allows his characters to go about their business of every day life while allowing the reader a glimpse into the tensions that exist among them,  while in the second he moves them into full-on crisis mode.    The action is slow and very controlled, with the narrative moving from character to character without wrecking the reading flow as the pressure intensifies from moment to moment.  The back blurb notes that the story is a "deft unraveling of the stories we hide from others and from ourselves," which it is in part, but I see it more as an intense character study examining lives that are already on the edge as they become pushed into a situation well beyond their control.  

Labeled as a "gripping tale of the violent irruptions of the past into the present,"  it's easy to understand why this book has been described by so many readers as a thriller -- it is definitely a nailbiter, and I have to say that the author does a fine job of leaving the answer to the key question of "why" all of this is happening until almost the very end, a factor that keeps the pages turning.  The Birthday Party may be frustrating for some people who like swift action, or who don't particularly care for long, streaming paragraphs, but as I noted earlier, once I got the reading rhythm under my belt I did not want to put it down.  I do think though, for reasons I won't get into here, that whoever decided on the title should have used the translated original, as it makes so much more sense and adds another layer of depth to the story as a whole. 

Recommended, for sure. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

the book group read, January 2024: The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro


Knopf/Everyman's Library, 2012
originally published 1989
230 pp


The Remains of the Day was the reading choice for my IRL book group for January 2024.  We'd read a couple of Ishiguro's novels prior to this one, starting with Never Let Me Go and more recently, Klara and the Sun, but of the three, The Remains of the Day is one that that most fully captured my heart, although  a couple of our members found it to be on the level of snoozefest or not interesting because they couldn't relate to any of the characters.  To each his/her own and all of that, but I loved this book.  

The story is revealed via Mr. Stevens, butler at Darlington Hall where he has served faithfully for decades.  It's the 1950s and the house has had a change of ownership from the original Lord Darlington to an American millionaire by the name of Farraday, who offers Stevens time off and the use of his car while Farraday is off to America.  Stevens decides to accept the offer, having in mind a visit to the former housekeeper, a Miss Kenton (who is now Mrs. Benn), whose recent letter implies a failing marriage. Stevens, who notes that there is a problem with the staff plan, believes that if he can convince Miss Kenton to return to service at Darlington Hall, her presence will fix the problem and everything will be righted again.  At least that's what he tells himself. 

Each day of his road trip is spent recollecting his career while revealing things about himself in the process.  At the forefront of his mind are the concepts of  "dignity" and "greatness" :
"The great butlers are by great virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone.  It is, as I say, a matter of 'dignity'." 
As the trip progresses, he also spends time reflecting on his former employer, who believed that "fair play had not been done at Versailles and that it was immoral to go on punishing a nation for a war that was now over."  In 1923 Darlington had hosted an "unofficial international conference," examining ways in which "the harshest terms of the Versailles treaty could be revised."  He brought together  "a broad alliance of figures" who shared his beliefs as well as those who were concerned about the possibility of the "economic chaos" in Germany spreading worldwide. He continued his work on Germany's behalf throughout the interwar years, bringing Nazis to Darlington Hall, and at one point even ordering Stevens to dismiss two housemaids because they were Jewish, a "duty" which according to Stevens, "demanded to be carried out with dignity."  As he at some later time notes, "A butler's duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great affairs of the nation."  Through it all, Stevens believed that "Whatever complications arose in his lordship's course over subsequent years," he had acted out of a "desire to see justice in this world."  In the postwar present, of course, Darlington had been outed as a dupe and a Nazi sympathizer, a fact reiterated to Stevens over the course of his travels; his reaction is that is is not his fault if "his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste..."  and that it is "quite illogical" for Stevens to "feel any regret or shame" on his own account.  However, he makes a number of shifts in this thinking while on his journey.   He has always taken great pride in, as noted above,  conquering his feelings when "shaken" by "external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing," but as the book comes to its conclusion,  he will end his journey with some painful realizations about his own life and exactly what price he has paid for his dutiful and faithful service over the decades. 

I love the butler metaphor, and The Remains of the Day is one of those rare books that will stay with me always, largely due to Ishiguro's ability to make Stevens so incredibly human to the point where it's impossible not to find some measure of grief for the man.    It reminds me more than a bit of his Artist of the Floating World, which is also set in a time frame of values shifts in which the main character takes a step back for reflection,  a novel of both memory and tragedy.   Both are beautifully written, but Remains of the Day edges out on top, although very slightly.    Very highly, highly recommended.

February's book group read: Pyre, by Perumal Murugan.

from Pinterest

I followed up my reading with the film from 1993.   As always, it was a bit different from the novel (which I liked better) but so very nicely done, fleshing out much of Stevens' character and offering Miss Kenton more of a presence than the novel afforded her.  When I asked my fellow book group members if they'd seen the movie, some of them had, years ago, and when I mentioned that I'd rented it for $4.00 on Amazon, I got the feeling from some of them that they felt maybe the $4.00 was not worth revisiting the novel as a film. Invisible, inner eyeroll -- their loss, not mine. I couldn't move away from my television while it was playing because it was so very, very good.   I highly recommend it as well, but read the novel first, for sure.