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Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

April 18, 2011 36 comments

Les Heures souterraines by Delphine de Vigan. Translated into English by Underground Time.

Paris, May 20th, 2009. Mathilde, 40, wakes up at 4am and knows she won’t sleep again. Her three children are peacefully sleeping and she will turn in her head once again the events that brought her there. Today is a special day: a fortune teller has predicted that she will meet a man on that day. Mathilde ironically states that she’s now low enough to trust a fortune teller.

Same day, same hour. Thibault, 43, wakes up in a hotel room, looks at his sleeping lover Lila. They spent the week-end together, they’ve made love and she said “thank you”. After that simple and dreadful “thank you”, Thibault abruptly decides to face the truth and accept that she doesn’t love him and will never love him. He knows the only way left is to break up with her today. Sitting in the bleak bathroom of their hotel room, he wonders if he’ll be strong enough to do it.

Mathilde is a senior executive in the marketing department of a flagship. Her professional life is a nightmare; she’s been the victim of bullying for months. Thibault is an itinerant GP in Paris. In the morning, he drops Lila home, breaks up with her and takes his first call. Mathilde and Thibault know they’ll have a tough day. Mathilde fights against her will to take a sick leave and stay home. Thibault will have to live through that first day after the break-up.

A decisive day starts for both of them. Mathilde unfolds her life and analyses how it all happened. One day during one meeting, she contradicts her boss Jacques in front of other people. From small silences to bad looks and petty measures, she is progressively set aside of her working team. She isn’t invited at meetings any more, her boss stops talking to her, her colleagues start to ignore her. She’s devastated as she’s been working with Jacques for eight years and everything has always run smoothly between them. She’s given a lot of time to the firm, her job helped her resurfacing after the death of her husband. Mathilde feels betrayed because she invested a lot of herself in this company, because Jacques hired her and had always trusted her.

Delphine de Vigan perfectly describes life in an office: the furniture, the discussions near the coffee machine, the gossips, the lunches with colleagues, the good moments too. The relationships are friendly but shallow. Everything Mathilde says is true to life: the hypocrite speech of the HR lady, the cowardice of her colleagues who are too afraid to lose their jobs to help her. She also perfectly shows how violent it is, and how difficult it is to survive when you become the black sheep. We see the slow deconstruction of Mathilde. She’s the victim and yet she’s ashamed of her situation, as if she were responsible of what happens to her. The firm is a merciless machine that breaks the feeble, promotes selfishness through a good dose of fear. The psychological mechanisms made me think of women beaten by their husbands.  It also reminded me of Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb.

Thibault has a different form of fatigue. His job eats him alive too. He spends an awful lot of time on the streets, stuck in traffic jam and wasting time to park his car. At 43 and after a solid decade as an itinerant GP, he has seen his lot of misery. We accompany him during his visits to the old lady who lives in a filthy apartment, to an obnoxious businessman who’d decided of his prescription by himself, to a lovely young woman who has all the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Somehow, on that 20 of May, his protective armour has holes. He’s affected by his patients, he’s upset to a point he needs pauses between appointments. His ruined love life left him bare and sensitive to his patients’ miseries.

Through eyes of Mathilde and Thibault, Delphine de Vigan gives an acute vision of working life in Paris. I worked there during three years. It was exhausting and we didn’t have any children at the time. Mathilde uses public transports to go to work and what Delphine de Vigan minutely describes is true, totally true. Everything is there, the unwritten circulation rules in the underground, the speed, the urgent need to get into the métro not to be late, the heat, the crowd. If Mathilde experiences underground transports, Thibault lives the nightmare of driving in a big city. Both are sort of crushed by the city, the anonymity, the indifference to other people, the incivility. When I moved in Paris, I looked at all these people rushing, running, looking like they could kill someone to get in their métro. I swore to myself I’d never become like this. And I kept my promise, any time I was tempted to run to catch a métro, I resisted.

The chapters alternate between Mathilde and Thibault and their voice felt real. Everything takes place in the same day, with flashbacks. Their pain, their fears, their despair were tangible and vivid. Delphine de Vigan chose to put the same sentences in their minds sometimes, it enforced the feeling of parallel lives. People think and feel alike but don’t meet in the big city. Her prose is sober and I felt close to the characters.

Although what she writes is really Parisian, there are no obscure references and it is easily accessible to foreigners. I have listened to the audio version and it was gripping. Our lives hold together on nothing. In the comments on my post about La Cousine Bette, we discussed the fear of ruin in 19th C novels and noticed that we tend to forget this threat is real nowadays too. This novel is a reminder. Modern life and security aren’t words that go together well. Have a boss a little too ready to take offence and your life turns to hell.

I’m not usually attracted by books that remind me too much about my working day but this one is good and it is important that novelists write about our life and our society.  I’m not saying that Delphine de Vigan is the new Zola but her novel is an honest scrutiny of the incredible violence experienced by people at work. It is also a lucid look at what big cities and their oppressive atmosphere do to their inhabitants. And if Zola were alive now, wouldn’t be interested in how companies can be weapons of destruction for their employees?

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