Céline Curiol is a welcome new voice into the personal narrative of French fiction. Her second novel(first to appear in the US), Voice Over, is a strong testament to her talent as well as deserving to be translated into fourteen languages. There is a restless somber tone to this book that pulls you along, as if you’re following the main character from ten paces behind. Although I think that there are certain adjectives that have been overused when describing a caustic element in novels, the word mordant does quickly surface as a descriptive of Curiol’s work. But it’s the type of biting self-satire that swells up throughout the book that makes it more substantial than a narrative that were less subtle, less snarky(oh, yet another worn literary descriptive…sorry…I will try to exorcise them from my vocabulary in the future). There is a sense of despair laced with apathy and futility – this woman is obsessed with one man and time is just happens between the moments with him. There is a blurb on the back of the book that compares Curiol’s style to Marguerite Duras and this is a fair comparison to make. The tension is matter-of-fact, distanced by a close third person narrative. She is watching herself float through life just as we are.
And if we all told the truth here, haven’t we been in a spot where there is that one person that you go a bit over the edge for? The main character in Voice Over remains nameless and, in a way, it makes it easier to relate to her dangerous behavior without judgment. She is in love with a man who has a girlfriend named Ange(French for Angel, Curiol takes full advantage of the figurative and literal metaphor of its meaning). For the ‘she’ of this novel, this man is her idea of perfection, the one man that would make all the malaise she feels for herself disappear. What is more disconcerting than her obsession with a man who is already involved is that he is not resistant nor passive to the idea of ‘them’ as a couple. Classically French, we have a mistress situation in the making. And as ‘she’ waits, we see her slip into a desperate hum of restlessness and recurring recklessness(wow, that was completely unplanned alliteration):
One evening after she has eaten dinner, rinsed her plate and cutlery and wiped up the crumbs with a sponge, she finds it hard to sit still on the sofa. She switches on the television, but instead of soothing her, the programs accentuate her disquiet. The two-dimensional beings gesticulating on-screen look like sad puppets, as if life had been reduced to a limited number of pre-ordained movements. She switches off the set, stands up, and wanders around the apartment searching for something to do. But no sooner does she take hold of something than she loses all interest in it. Using it becomes an empty gesture, bringing neither distraction nor relief. She has only herself for company; the lead is starting to exert its grip once more. To go out, to meet someone, in the hope of feeling something other than her own physical limits.
The phrase that sticks out to me in the above passage is ‘bringing neither distraction nor relief’. This hope that something will bring either of these two things motivates all of her decisions and justifies her hapless self-destruction. She meets and sleeps with a transvestite, she steals from clothing store, she pretends she’s hooker at a dinner party ‘he’ and Ange have invited her to – all this she does as if she just wants to see what will happen, if something will make her stop thinking about him, or even better, making her stop wanting him. These distractions are humiliating, if nothing else. After pretending she is a prostitute at the dinner party ‘he’ has invited her to, one of his married friends, Maxime, calls her for a ‘date’, which she accepts:
He offers to take her to a private club with its own terrace. An irresistable proposition, he must think, for any woman with a passion for billing and cooing outdoors in temperate climates, a deft nod of romanticism. Taxi. The driver lowers the window to ask if the ride will be long enough to be worth the trouble. Someone has left a business card on the back seat. Olivier Chedubarum, Photographer, 01 52 29n07 18. She slips the piece of cardboard into her bag. Sharp clack as the driver automatically locks the door. Through the rear window, she catches sight of a man in a hooded tracksuit moving along with a supple stride. His face is black. Don’t like seeing ’em round these parts. Stepping sharply on the accelerator, the driver sets off. Streams of red lights and yellow lights against the backdrop of a sleeping city. Walled off behind a surface of glass, with the help of the night-time calm, each remembers a past when things were different. Inside the car, silence form the bodies of three strangers who have nothing to say to one another. She sees a woman holding a poodle’s leash in one hand, clutching her jacket to her chest with the other. Further on, a man is letting out a stream of urine into the corner of two walls, his feet spread wide. At place de la Concorde, she hears the sound of a zip. Reluctantly she turns her eyes away from the large lightning bugs that have metamorphosed into streetlamps. Mr. Diplomat has his fly open. She reads the words Calvin Klein on the wide elastic band of the boxer shorts stretched over his abdomen. He caresses the back of her neck. She knows what he is waiting for, no idea what the going rate for a blowjob could be. Her role is starting to get to her. I don’t do it in taxis. She leans into his and closes the zip. He looks irritated but doesn’t dare complain. He tells the driver to go faster.
It’s difficult not to wonder why she puts herself through this, but then the deeper you get into the novel and her psyche, it becomes obvious and expected.
A couple of Curiol’s choices intigued and impressed me. The fact that the protagonist is a train announcer at the Gare du Nord really amplifies her disconnect with the world around her. She is present but not engaging, just like her relationship to life and to her obsession. Also, the fact that Curiol doesn’t name either ‘him’ or ‘her’ yet names all the other characters really plays into the obsessive tone and takes you deeper into the mind of the main character.
This novel imparts upon you the fine edge of love and obsession. How easily one can take the wrong road, depending on personal history and self-worth. If you think you are the only one who had been through something like this, think again. Voice Over will prove you different and might even help you out a little bit.
Movie Pairing: After you read this,try watching
Hiroshima mon amour, a screenplay written by Marguerite Duras based on her own novel of love and obsession. A definite stalwart of French cinema. Oh, and if you want to add a little wine, better get the tartest Chardonnay that you can find. So dry and biting you’ll want to spit wood. Perfect.