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Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?

February 9, 2011 14 comments

Un homme à distance by Katherine Pancol. (152 pages) Not translated in English. The title means “A man at a distance”

Un homme à distance is a disconcerting little book. It’s an epistolary novel between Kay Bartholdi and Jonathan Shields. Kay is a bookseller in Fécamp, Normandy. Jonathan is American, travelling across France to write a tourist guide. He stopped in Fécamp, left a note and bank notes at Kay’s book-store. The note includes the addresses of the hotels he will stay in during his tour of France. The money is for Kay to send him books. They start a correspondence, talking about the books they like. They bounce on each other’s references. Jonathan guesses right. Like the reader, Kay is disconcerted.  

Est-ce qu’on sait tout de l’autre quand on aime les mêmes livres?Est-ce que les livres sont le moyen de tout se dire, même l’inavoué, le plus terrible secret?Si vous m’aviez parlé de livres qui m’indiffèrent, si je vous avais annoncé des livres qui vous laissent froids, auriez-vous pensé à moi comme si vous saviez tout de moi?

Et pourquoi me suis-je livrée à vous aussi facilement?

Pourquoi suis-je allée vers vous en aveugle confiance?

Parce que j’avançais sur des livres, complices muets, farfadets malicieux?

Parce que vous me répondiez en glissant d’autres volumes sous vos pas?

Do we know everything about someone who enjoys the same books?Are books a way to tell everything, even the unspoken, the most terrible secret?If you had talked about books that are indifferent to me, if I had chosen books that left you cold, would you have thought of me as if you knew everything about me?

And why did I open to you so easily?

Why did I go to you with blind trust?

Because I was walking on books, silent accomplices, impish elves?

Because your answers would slip other volumes under my steps?

 

 A thought-provoking question, indeed and I don’t have the answer.

Unlike my Guernsey marshmallow friends from the other day, this doesn’t turn into ridiculous mawkishness. And I was surprised by the denouement.

I’m embarrassed with this post because writing more about the text would reveal important pieces of the plot. It’s a book about books but it is more than that. It’s a book about love, but it’s also more than that. It’s a book about how book lovers can find help, comfort, shelter in novels.

It’s a book about the freedom brought by solitude. He has a bird name. She has the name of the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Each of them has their idea of what freedom is. In French, Un homme à distance means at the same time a man who is far away and a man to keep at a distance. And Jonathan is both.  

I enjoyed this one-evening read and I thank Caroline from Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat for recommending it to me. I’m curious about the books Kay and Jonathan talk about, especially The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke, since I really loved Letters to a Young Poet last year.

I wish Katherine Pancol had made a moderate use of exclamation marks, but apart from that, her style is flowing. It improved in her following novels, Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles and La Valse lente des tortues. In the latter, there are references to Romain Gary. In this one, Jonathan is American but has spent his childhood in Nice, where his father was a consul. My one-track-Gary mind saw here a discreet allusion to Gary’s own adolescence in Nice. And as he was the consul of France in Los Angeles, I couldn’t help thinking about him. Incurable me.

Something else. I always have a lot of fun reading clichés about CPAs. They are always dull and shy little men with glasses. They supposedly love nothing else than numbers and usually have no imagination. Whenever a writer wants a boring character, you can be sure he’s an accountant. No writer can imagine a CPA as a thirty-something woman who loves books. Life is more imaginative that literature, I suppose.

PS : For readers able to read in French, it is easy to read.

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