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Hidden Lives, by Sylvie Germain.

November 2, 2010 5 comments

L’Inaperçu, by Sylvie Germain. Translated as Hidden Lives

The novel opens on a catching scene: a woman is running along the Seine, holding something/someone close to her chest. It’s the end of December, 1967. A man, dressed in Santa Claus, Pierre, sees her and runs after her, probably to prevent a suicide.

She is Sabine Bérynx, a young widow, who lost her husband Georges two years ago in a terrible car accident. She has three sons – Henri, the eldest, followed by twins, Hector and René – and a daughter, Marie. Her father in law, Charlam, the contraction of Charles-Amédée, is authoritarian and built in concrete by certitudes and principles.

The first part of the novel consists in introducing the reader to this family and its main drama, the death of Georges, the husband, the father, the son, the nephew. This chapter of their lives ends with Sabine hiring Pierre to work for her in the gardening store she inherited from Georges. Eight years pass by and we find the family again as it is stricken by a new drama: Pierre disappears. The reader knows what happened but almost all the protagonists are blind. This second part relates how the members of the family cope with it.

All along the novel, we learn more about each member of the family, what they do with their lives and what particular event, unknown from the others, sealed their destiny. Each of them had to face a decisive moment, unspeakable because it carries shame, pain or feelings condemned by society.

Sylvie Germain has a vegetable way to describe feelings. The intimate sensations of the characters are always compared to nature. When desperate, they wish they could melt with the earth, become trees, change in flowers. Her style is poetic, lyric, musical. She likes to build long sentences full of adjectives following one after the other.

Jusqu’au soir, la lumière déploie alors d’admirables ondoiements de soie bleu intense lamé de rose, de safran, de lilas, de carmin, de grenat. Until night does light then spread out remarkable waves of intense blue silk, lamé with rose, saffron, lilac, carmine, dark red.

 The French title, “Inaperçu” had several meanings. The first one refers to the English titles “Hidden Lives” and the secret inner life of each character. But “Inaperçu” also means “unnoticed” and that’s what these characters aim at when they are hurt. They want live unnoticed, leave no trace of their passage in this world, cross life like shadows, immobile and passive like plants. They become wallflowers. Here is the description of a century-old turtle, to which one of the characters identifies:  

Elle avait un pouvoir d’immobilité fascinant, c’était une masse de patience, un bloc de vie au ralenti, voire en dormance. Peut-être n’appartenait-elle pas entièrement à l’ordre des vivants, mais se tenait-elle au croisement du minéral, du végétal et de l’animal? She has a fascinating capacity to stay still, she was a mass of patience, a block of slow or even sleepy life. Perhaps didn’t she totally belong to the living but was standing at the crossroads between mineral, vegetable or animal kingdoms?

It is well written but we have seen it all before. The wounds endured by these people are classic in such novels: guilt, repressed homosexuality, incestuous desires. It tells how a guilty conscience can ruin a life, how a lack of communication can create tsunamis in existences, how dramas experienced in childhood can twist a child’s development. The book is full of cheap underlying references to psychoanalysis. I was sometimes under the impression I was reading a parabola written by Françoise Dolto for one of her lecture on child development.

I also thought there were too many characters for so short a novel (243 pages). As a consequence, none is fully developed. Perhaps it was Sylvie Germain’s purpose to show no body runs really right and that we all have personal cracks in our souls.

Despite its literary qualities, this novel never found its way down from my brains to my heart. I remained a distant spectator and felt no compassion or sympathy for any of them.

In the category of novels dealing with family built on secrecy or destroyed by a dramatical event and/or the resulting guilty conscience of a parent, I prefer “Un secret” (A secret) by Philippe Grimberg or Impardonables (Unforgivable: a Novel) by Philippe Djian.

PS : I noticed that when I first wrote this post, I called the main character Sylvie, like the author, instead of Sabine. A Freudian stip? While reading it, I perceived this story might have autobiographical elements.

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