By Pierre Michon
Translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
Reviewed by Monica Carter
One of the signs of a great book is that the reader feels like she is reading a great book. From the very first sentence, she knows a question has been answered, a new world has been discovered, an intellectual delicacy has been offered up to savor and more than likely, her life of reading will never be the same. It has been changed by the indelible mark of book that our memory will not let escape.
She senses that she is reading literature as it is intended to be. In Small Lives by French author Pierre Michon, not only are we aware that we are reading great literature, but we have the privilege to accompany him on this journey in which he discovers the voice and style that make this an outstanding work of depth, substance and originality.
France has long recognized the talents of Mr. Michon and his lyrical style—he has been awarded many of France’s top literature prizes for his works including the Prix Décembre, Grand Prix SGDL de literature, the Prix Louis Guilloux, and the Prix de la Ville de Paris. Similar to the recent Nobel Prize winning Le Clézio, Michon is regarded as one of France’s best contemporary authors. Yet, no matter how many prizes he has garnered in his literary career, nothing takes away from the poetic, dense prose that expose the nuances of French rural life in this framework of eight short stories in which Michon illuminates the hazy shadows of humanity.
These stories are imbued with a sense of loss, the bittersweet schism between what is and what could have been, a constant search for the roots of identity in a family history, and the reassurance of place. Like in the first story, “The Life of Andre Dufourneau,” in which the young boy as writer looks at a worn picture of Andre Dufourneau, the adventurous son from long ago who never returned:
Come now, admit it, he really resembles a writer. There is a portrait of a young Faulkner, a small man like him, in which I recognize the same haughty yet drowsy air, the eyes heavy but with an ominous, but flashing gravity, and under the ink-black moustache formerly used to hide the coarseness of the lip, alive like the din silenced by the spoken word, the same bitter mouth that prefers to smile. He moves away from the deck, stretches out on his berth, and there he writes the thousand novels out of which the future is made and which the future unmakes; he is living the fullest days of his life. The clock of rolling waves disguises the hours, time passes and place changes, Dufourneau is as alive as the stuff of his dreams; he has been dead a long time; I am not yet abandoning his shadow.
And although Michon follows the lives of people from the small village of Creuse, they don’t live simple lives nor are they simple people. Michon gives us the simultaneous struggle of emotions deftly and with the clarity of an epiphany. In “The Lives of Eugène and Clara,” we feel the guilt and shame of a grandson who attempts to rise above instinct when he meets with his grandfather whom he does not truly love:
Though, at the time, when I saw him, that was not what I thought; his illuminated sorry face—more broken than King Lear’s than clown’s, drunken old soldier, all shame drowned—his big red nose, his hands just as big and red, the incredible folds in his doggy eyelids, his croaking voice, all made me want to laugh—the laugh of the nervous child, which is a way of reversing the tragedy, of denying the unease. I reproached myself for that secret desire. To look dubiously, even ironically, upon “someone I should have loved,” to harbor that improper thought: “my grandfather is very ugly,” seemed to me a fault of the most serious nature; without a doubt, the faculty for such impious speculations belonged to “monsters,” and to them alone; was I, therefore, a monster? Immediately, I promised myself to love him better; and with that promise—the internal drama in which one plays all the roles is the emotional leaven of the so-called tender years—waves of affection for the poor old fellow washed over me again. My eyes misted with the sweet tears of atonement, and I would have liked to follow through the manifest acts of kindness; I do not know if I dared to do so at the time.
The mistrust of parents, grandparents and elders is a theme that presents itself in each story, sometimes prominently, sometimes faintly. Michon’s father disappeared when he was young and it is no wonder that, as a reader, we feel the parental figures are distant and austere, people to leave behind. Later, the act of “writing” becomes the ultimate father figure that is manipulative and unforgiving, leaving the narrator lonely and wandering, hoping to be assuaged by the figurative fatherly savior known as “Writing” in “The Life of Georges Bandy”:
This naïveté had its reverse side of twisted greed; I wanted the martyr’s wounds and his salvation, the saint’s vision, but I also wanted the crook and miter that impose silence, the Episcopal word that drowns even the word of kings. If Writing was given to me, I thought, it would give me everything. Dulled by this belief, absent in the absence of my God, I sank deeper each day into impotence and anger, those two jaws of the vise that holds in its grip the howling demand.
And, turn the screw redoubling the grip, necessary sidekick and voyeur of the infernal tortures, doubt arrives in its turn, wresting me from the torment of my vain belief to inflict an even darker agony, saying to me, “If Writing is given to you, it will give you nothing.”
It is no wonder that one of the two translators is a poet—his prose reads like verse and the translation is honors his style. It is difficult to point out specific passages that typify Michon’s rich imagery or the way he paints the poetry of human nature because there are just too many. The writing is layered and poignant and it is where we find the complex in simplicity and the beauty in loss. Michon has allowed us to see this in lives that are no smaller than our own.