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Vengeances by Philippe Djian

December 9, 2013 14 comments

Vengeances by Philippe Djian 2011. Not translated into English (yet)

Qu’avais-je à perdre? Me restait-il quoi que ce soit que je ne puisse remettre en jeu, qui vaille vraiment le coup, qui fasse réfléchir? Que préserver ? Que sauver, que garder ? La réponse était simple. What did I have to lose? Had I anything left that I could throw in the game, that was worth fighting for or that made me think twice? What to salvage, to keep? The answer was simple.

 This billet has a twin brother at Books I love and others I get stuck with. Indeed, I had this Djian on the shelf, waiting for my attention and it was available at Beirut’s book fair. So Nino and I have been reading Vengeances along.  And luck was on our side since we had the opportunity to meet and discuss it face to face. That’s the magical confederacy of book lovers. But back to the book.

Djian_vengeancesMarc is forty five, a sculptor of contemporary works. He’s supposed to live with Elizabeth but she’s currently MIO. He doesn’t know where she is and if she’ll come home. Marc’s son Alexandre committed suicide about a year ago. Then Marc’s life went astray and it drove Elizabeth away. Marc has two close friends, Anne and Michel. They’ve known each other since their youth and their lives have been intertwined since. They belonged to the same tiny ultra-left group, Marc used to be Anne’s boyfriend and Michel is Marc’s artistic agent. They are tied by emotional and financial bonds.

One day, Marc is in the metro, going home, when he rescues a young woman who vomits violently in front of him. She’s totally wasted. He takes pity on her and brings her home. She’s Gloria and she says she’s Alexandre’s girlfriend. On impulse, Marc asks her to move in with him. Gloria’s arrival will shatter what little stability remained in his life.

Gloria knew who Marc was and makes her nest among the triangle of friends and brings poison in this small circle. They had reached a balance and she spoils it. The interactions between the characters are quite interesting. Gloria flirts with Michel and awakens in him what we call in French le démon de midi (Literally, the noon devil, in other word and according to the dictionary, lust affecting a man in mid-life. Yes, we have an expression to say that in French). Anne is frustrated because Michel doesn’t pay attention to her anymore and she wouldn’t mind rekindling her former passion with Marc. Marc considers Gloria as his daughter-in-law; she’s definitely off-limit for him. His art is affected by his mourning and he doesn’t create anything good, which means Michel will soon lack of sculptures to sell. Anne and Michel don’t like Gloria; they feel the danger she represents and let’s be honest, Gloria doesn’t make a lot of effort to be agreeable. She’s impolite and venomous. She clearly takes advantage of Marc’s pain. He feels guilty about his son. They were estranged and he can’t forgive himself for not knowing him better, not noticing that things were that bad for him. So he’s always happy to gobble any piece of information she’ll throw at him. He’s that needy. Does she tell the truth? Who is she really? Marc doesn’t care to know; he’s desperate.

mainThe narrative shifts from Marc’s first person point of view to an omniscient narrator. The changes come quite often and are marked by a milestone “hand” like the one at the beginning of this paragraph. I have read more than a dozen of Djian’s novels and it’s not the first time his character is named Marc. There’s a Marc in Incidences, in the Doggy Bag series, in Assassins and certainly in others. It’s a pattern, the signature of the artist and a way to say to the readers that names don’t mean anything. Marc could be anyone, even a Philippe.

marc_philippeI find the writer is popping in his own page rather amusing, not that it’s never been done before. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s habit to appear in his films. As always, I enjoyed Djian’s sense of humour, especially when he mocks himself:

ChlorophylleLike Incidences and Impardonnables, Vengeances is a dark story. The characters aren’t likeable and a feeling of dread and doom weighs upon the book. I expected that kind of ending but I thought it fell abruptly on me. This book could have been polished a little bit. In my opinion, the characters’ ages don’t match with their life experiences. Marc and Michel are too young to have taken part in these political clandestine fights. They should have been around twenty in 1975, which means being born in 1955 or 1960 at the latest. In this case, you can’t be 45 in 2010. And the novel is set in our time. In my opinion, the ending was botched up, I felt the novel had reached the expected number of pages or that the deadline to send it to the publisher had come. Too bad.

There are recurring things in life. Every year brings a new film by Woody Allen and a new novel by Djian. I love both artists but some of their works are better than others. For me, Vengeances is not Djian at his best. Incidences and Impardonnables are better books. Even if Djian has forever turned his back to the sunny novels of his beginnings, I still recommend Echine and Maudit manège to anyone who would like to read him.

Consequences by Philippe Djian

March 2, 2013 24 comments

Incidences by Philippe Djian 2010 English title : Consequences (Sept. 2013)

Dieu sait vers quoi notre vie nous porte, Annie, Dieu sait ce qu’on récolte au bout du compte. On décide de choisir la facilité et soudain tout se complique. On passe le plus clair de son existence à payer pour ses erreurs, vous savez, ce n’est pas moi qui l’ait inventé. On peut le vérifier chaque jour. God knows where our life leads us, Annie, God knows what we get in the end. We choose the easy way and suddenly everything gets complicated. We spend most of our existence atoning for our mistakes, you know, I didn’t invent this. We can see this every day. (Sorry, no professional translation available.)

I believe every reader has their “comfort” writers, ones they enjoy and turn to when then they when to be sure to read something good. Philippe Djian is one of my comfort writers; I’ve been reading him since adolescence. I wrote a billet about Unforgiveable, but for the rest, I read them pre-blog. He’s not very famous in the English-speaking world, I believe, except for Betty Blue, which was made into a film.

Incidences starts with Marc driving his Fiat 500 at night on a small lacy road in the mountains. He teaches creative writing at the local university and is a womanizer. Or more precisely, he enjoys discreet no-strings-attached sex with some of his students. This particular night, he’s bringing Barbara home for a booty call. The next morning, there’s a slight glitch in his usual routine: Barbara is dead. Instead of following the conventional path and call the police, he decides to haul the body in the mountain and ditch it in a crevasse.

The next day at work, he is interviewed by a policeman about Barbara’s sudden disappearance and seems to get away with it. Myriam, Barbara’s step-mother, comes to see him to hear about Barbara and discuss her with him. They are attracted to each other and start a steamy relationship.

Despite Marc’s carefulness, everything goes downhill from there on.

Marc is 53 and lives with his older sister Marianne, also a teacher at the same university. They have a muddy relationship, coming from a dreadful childhood tainted with violence and abuse. A drama that was never healed happened and the reader discovers progressively the extents of the damages. Marianne and him have put together a way of living that allow them to cope with the past and take care of each other. With Myriam in the picture and Richard, the president of the university coming on to Marianne, their careful balance is shattered.

When you read my summary, it seems quite a classic novel but it isn’t. From the beginning, the reader can feel that Marc isn’t a reliable narrator, that his reactions are out of line, that something’s off in his behavior. Is he sane? The women in his life are his curse: his abusive mother, his fragile sister, his forbidden young lovers and his unquenchable lust for Myriam.

Marc is a cold character, one that makes you feel uneasy, not a mind you’re happy to visit. He doesn’t trust the police and is ready to anything to save himself. He’s like an animal, his survival instinct overcomes all sense of propriety or of moral code. He has a hard time with the stiff conservatism of the university and his affairs with students don’t help his case.

Les professeurs pouvaient s’accoupler aux professeurs, ça ne posait aucun problème, l’exercice était même amplement pratiqué dans les environs, voire encouragé, mais en revanche les professeurs ne pouvaient pas s’accoupler avec les étudiants ni avec les parents d’élèves. C’était la loi. Personne ne voulait d’ennui. Personne ne songeait à mélanger les genres. Aucun membre sensé de la communauté. Teachers could mate with teacher, that wasn’t a problem, the exercise was by the way widely practiced in the area or even encouraged. But teachers couldn’t mate with students or their parents. It was the law. Nobody was seeking trouble. Nobody thought about mixing genres. No sensible member of this community. (Sorry, no professional translation available.)

Djian_incidencesMixing genres is exactly what Marc does and also exactly what Djian is doing in this novel. I haven’t read a lot of Noir but I’ve read enough of Guy’s reviews to recognize the pattern in a book. This is classic Noir to me: a lethal woman unfurling her sexuality to a man who cannot resist, a dramatic event that shakes the hero’s carefully built life, the past looming and threatening, a character who doesn’t make the right decision. He’s doomed from the start and the tension builds up as his life gets more and more complicated as the events develop. The reader is attached to the book with a suspenseful string, knows it can only end badly but wonder how bad it will be and what kind of bad it will be.

Djian’s style is excellent, as usual or at least, I enjoy his style. Contrary to Unforgivable which was too rooted in today’s society for its own good, this one has a sense of timelessness that helps books surviving the time they were released. I love the cover of the book as it represents well the physical crevasse where Marc throws Barbara’s body and the figurative fault-line that this event and his subsequent acquaintance with Myriam create in his life.Once again, Djian didn’t let me down, I wanted to read something good, I did. I also have Vengeance at home and I can’t wait to read his latest, Oh! which received a lot of praise when it was published last fall.

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