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"Fiction: To Come Back Rich or Die There" a review of Small Lives from David Varno in Brooklyn Rail


Vies minuscles, as it was published originally by Gallimard in 1984, was the first book by the prolific French author Pierre Michon, relatively unknown to American readers but long revered in France and adored by certain American writers such as Guy Davenport and Leonard Michaels. Of his twelve books of narrative, which imagine and track the lives of figures such as Rimbaud, Impressionist painters, the author’s family and his own story, this is Michon’s third to be translated into English.

Small Lives is a seemingly fictitious work composed of eight stories, each an account of a person from the narrator’s life. The first is of an orphan, André Duforneau, taken in by the narrator’s great-grandparents as a boy, who goes on to gallivant in the Kipling-fabled Africa (though his fate is more Conradian). Little is known by the family of Duforneau, but for a few sketchy photographs and mundane letters home, though much is made by the narrator, who now recounts his childhood imagination; of Duforneau’s letters, he confesses that “I have read what I have never read.” In Michon’s pages, we see this illegitimate great-uncle first boarding the ship to Africa, “the sea wind ruffling his hair like the hand of a romantic painter” (a touch that introduces a consistent use of allusion to works of art throughout the book). Duforneau is also conceived Napoleonically, and as Faulkner; a short man, smirking and supercilious. Indeed, as Michon continues through portraits of his grandparents, ancestors, teachers and schoolmates, he persistently finds cases of potential or failed writers.

The task set for Michon’s readers is particularly arduous; his writing is so illusory and dense. Perhaps more so than Proust’s (whose influence plays a significant role in the book’s narrative devices and is eventually discussed in the narrative itself), because Michon moves faster. Crucial facts of the narrator’s life are dealt with glancingly, as are points of French history and cultural tradition, such as folk songs and stories—which make the reading even more difficult for non-Francophiles. With this in mind, the translators deserve a special mention for their work, which retains the poetry of Michon’s tight prose, full of homonyms and subtlety, and they employ an appropriate measure of alliteration and cadence.

Though Proustian in tone, and with a number of subjects shared with À la recherche du temps perdu, including the attachment to one’s mother, the book’s motifs add up to a more complete response to that other modern chronicle of the writer’s passage: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s almost all here: the distant father, the cold, stifling schoolyard (haunted by two brothers who are compared to Icarus and Daedalus!), the overbearing presence of the Catholic Church, the epiphanies, the obsession with sex, and the effort to convince women of his merit as a writer.

The author’s play between narrator and autobiographer involves a vacillation of the real and the fictive, the reflective and the imaginative, and the density of the book periodically tests the equation. As Michon writes of an affair with a woman who initially picked him up in a bar, then allowed him to move in—a period in his life that succeeded a passionate but destructive relationship, which he’d held onto because of his self-loathing—he tells of a newfound belief in himself as a writer. But the work was only done in his head, for fear that, “Had I written it, only ashes would have been left on the page, like a log after it burns or a woman after an orgasm.”

Does this conclusion come from reflection on himself at the time of writing, looking back on when he once deluded himself and his women as this future Great Author back in the 1970s? Or is he merely dramatizing how he once felt? These stories are so strongly told that there’s little choice, after careful reading, but to accept the two voices as working together in a process wherein the author attempts to find the place where fiction can exist in one’s life, and therefore in the world, after believing that fiction is only “what is outside of the world.” To go and find it and come back to the world, rather than live without having made the effort, as he was tempted in his charlatan’s disgrace. To realize the potential he saw in Duforneau, who on the eve of his voyage had proclaimed, “I will come back rich, or die there.”

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