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Was the world anything else than a tiny village with hilarious hazards ? (Djian)

June 22, 2010 7 comments

 Impardonnables, by Philippe Djian.  

As Philippe Djian is best known in France than abroad, some biographical details are probably welcome. Djian is a French writer, was born in 1949 and has been famous in France since the 1980s. He lived in the USA for a while and is now settled in Biarritz, in the Basque country. According to me, his best books are the first ones, “37°2 Le Matin” (Betty Blue), “Echine”, “Maudit Manège” (the following of Betty Blue) and “Bleu comme l’enfer”. Apparently, the last three ones have not been translated in English, unfortunately. His favourite writers are mostly American: John Fante, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and many others. They deeply influenced his style.

Impardonnables (Unforgivable: a novel) was published in 2009. The plot is centred on Francis, who lost his wife and eldest daughter in a terrible car accident, some ten years ago. His second marriage with Judith, a 50-years-old real estate agent, is in bad shape. The book opens on another personal drama, as his second daughter, Alice, disappears. For Francis, the pain is excruciating and the unhealed grief from the former car accident resurfaces. I will not tell more about the story, to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say things are not exactly what they seem to be and that I did not see the end coming.

Francis is an alter ego for Philippe Djian. He is a sixty-years-old famous writer, who lives in the Basque country. Djian already used another alter ego named Dan in Echine. Francis seems to be an older and disenchanted Dan. When Dan was young, a writer-to-be, a good father for his son Hermann, Francis is 60 (“a young old man”), a famous writer, whose best books are behind him. He raised Alice alone and failed as a father, according to him. Dan was full of life and Francis is sad and disillusioned.

However, there is a lot more in this book than just a mourning and whining writer. It raises issues on parenthood, on how ungrateful children can be, whatever you do for them. (Think of Father Goriot, by Balzac). Francis is lucid about himself and does not try to evade responsibility in the disaster of his life. “Unforgivable” applies to several realities in the novel, the French title is a plural. It relates to acts and to persons. Some things are forever unforgivable because the one who could grant the pardon is dead. Some things are unforgivable because they lead to someone’s physical or mental death. Some people are unforgivable because what they did for futile reasons brought an irretrievable pain to beloved persons.

Reading Impardonnables just after Fante’s Road to Los Angeles was as big a mistake as eating Gruyère cheese after Roquefort. The taste of the first one is so strong that the second seems tasteless, even if it is the best Gruyère ever. So is Francis after Arturo Bandini.

I had never noticed before how much Djian mimics Fante’s style. Even with the difference of language, French versus English, the similarity is obvious. Djian also writes in short sentences, with images and every word is thought through. But I missed the fun Fante sprays in his descriptions and dialogues. Maybe the lack of energy in Djian’s book is only due to the difference in ages between the two characters. Francis is depressed and ageing, whereas Arturo is 18 and excited to start his adult life.

Impardonnables gathers the usual themes of Djian’s novels: a father raising his child alone, a struggling writer, a woman as a best friend. Several weaknesses displeased me in the book, such as Alice being an actress, without sparing us all the clichés (former drug and alcohol addict, egocentric). I did not like either the frequent allusions to Hemingway, as if Francis were a stupid rock star fan worshipping relics. It also includes too many present-day references. No one will understand them in a decade or so, and it will prevent Djian’s work to reach some immortality. I am convinced that immortal books, apart from being exceptionally well written, are the ones that have an eternal theme put in a vague enough setting, so that readers from another time can easily identify. Impardonnables will become outdated because of all those little references to the present time, such as the name of a pain-killer, Philip Roth’s last book or an allusion to Brad Pitt. It is a pity, for it is well written.

Despite all these flaws, I enjoyed reading Impardonnables, and I was eager to know how this would end. I was surprised, which is usually agreeable in a book. It only sounded dull after The Road to Los Angeles, I probably would have had liked it better if I had read it at a different time.

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