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Book Club Spy: The Adversary / Le Grand Meaulnes

On reviewing my notes from last week’s Book Club, various conclusions can be made about the evening shared discussing French literature: that a lot of bread must have been consumed to amass quite so many crumbs, my ability to shovel soup into my slavering maw should be addressed, and I appear to have made no notes at all. Well. This may be related to the moment in the evening when the assembled members agreed that two books were chosen out of blind enthusiasm rather than an exacting decision to analyse two comparable texts. The only thing connecting these books in any way, is the fact that they are both French. As a result, they shall be reviewed briefly, and, more importantly, separately.

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere is the result of the author’s obsession with the true story of a mild-mannered mediocrity creating his ideal life through deception, before the inevitable hubristic backlash results in tragedy. Romand gets the girl, children and idyllic home, only when he gets in the car every morning he is not going to the WHO job he describes. He kips and reads in the car all day, funding his life by claiming to invest the funds of his gullible relatives while actually ploughing through them to bankroll his bourgeois existence, and later take his shrewish mistress to restaurants. Once the cash starts to bottom out and the resulting questions can no longer be avoided, he decides to kill everyone in order to cover his tracks. Genius, except he botches killing the mistress, then himself, and is no Hannibal Lecter (sadly) when it comes to the evidence trail and interrogation. He flourishes, Aitken-style, in prison and corresponded with Carrere while he was writing. It remains apparent that he is not quite all there, a strangely passive and pallid figure who burns his house to the ground rather than apply some hardy lateral thinking to his finances. Although this story is extraordinary in terms of bare factual material, the treatment could have benefitted from a few less rhetorical questions. The weedy murderer was not quite colourless enough to create a chilling In Cold Blood vacuum of reason whirring around the meticulously rendered detail, instead the reader is left feeling flat rather than flattened, and irritated that the wife never opened a bank statement for a shared account, never asked her husband enough searing questions to expose him. These words left unsaid coagulate to form a heaviness that was perhaps the ballast holding Romand down.

Julian Barnes may have no reason to doubt the classic status of Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, but then he did not have to contend with pithy nicknames such as Le Grand Snooze provided by his peers.  Augustin Meaulnes leaves his best friend and our narrator to go on an adventure where he stumbles into a wedding in a lovely ruined house and  meets his dream girl before Frantz the groom is jilted, the party comes to a halt and Meaulnes returns to the schoolroom. Finding the girl and reuniting Frantz with his own lost love becomes his mission, as his voyage fundamentally changes the course of his life, and of course the narrator’s, living as he does through his vivacious friend’s story rather than his own quiet existence of unrequited love. The occasion on which Augustin first meets Yvonne he is described to have “stared at that exquisite profile with every atom of his eyes until they were ready to fill with tears”. Operatic language of this height can be attributed to being part of the last gust of Romanticism, combined with the foibles of interpretative translation, but there are few moments like this that actually work, and more like a desperate scrabble not to read like an extended hammy sigh: “My fiancée has disappeared, letting me know that she could not be my wife, that she was a dressmaker and not a princess. I do not know what will become of me. I am going away. I do not wish to live any longer.” This parting note from Frantz before he departs to live as a gypsy neatly sums up the novel’s limitations. Our heroes are either ‘speechless with emotion’ or too restless to sleep, dying of love or searching desperately for a departed figure who may have been nothing more than a dream. As a dream sequence, or a nineteenth- century version of The Virgin Suicides (blurred lenses, lots of floating about absently, very little actual dialogue) it is quite beautiful, and ideal for the true Francophile, but perhaps not for the crabbier reader, or someone who has just made it through a blood-soaked account of a murder set in the present day.

The Editors

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