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The Unbridled Orgy

“His books conveyed a suffering he hadn’t felt for a long time, but he knew people who read books were people who couldn’t stand reality, who suffered and sought in books people like themselves, instead of people who, with their happiness, would be an insult to them, and that was why, unlike other foolhardy authors who flaunted their good fortune and dazzling vacations in books that no longer sold, he, Boris, showed off only his wounds, his doubts, his questioning, his bitterness, and carefully hid from his still-numerous readers the thousand and one joys and pleasures his life held, notably that of nestling, in a large Parisian apartment, among his books and favorite paintings, up against the heiress to the Chaufour steelworks, who had, once upon a time, shown him what kindness and luxury were.”  Patrick Besson, The Unbridled Orgy

I’ve written on Patrick Besson before, prefacing translations in Two Lines and The Chattahoochee Review. Born in 1956 to a Croatian mother and a Russian father, he burst precociously onto the scene with his first novel in 1974. He has since produced, with the same dizzying force that informs his headlong prose, more than twenty books, including his Croatian saga Dara (Albin Michel), winner of the 1985 Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française. The Prix Renaudot and Prix Populiste followed ten years later, for his novel Les Braban (Albin Michel, 1995). Communist by birth, polemicist by practice, prodigy by talent, and enfant terrible by trade, the unpredictable Besson has published more than 50 books—novels, story collections, and nonfiction. He churns out regular columns for the leading French papers Le Figaro and L’Humanité.

Besson’s oeuvre can be roughly divided into contemporary tragicomedies of manners, and historical epics. Both revolve around beautiful, witty people behaving badly, though the latter are scaffolded on exhaustive research. The best known of these are La Statue du Commandeur, his dual portrait of Pushkin and Gogol, and the Goncourt-nominated Les Frères de la Consolation, a feast of a novel where he drops figures historical and fictional alike as if they were society names: Balzac, Sand, de Musset, Gay, Nerval, Gavroche, and Vidocq. He presents a portrait of society sparkling with deceit, in which every line of dialogue is an enticement or a riposte. His vision of history is at once playful and cynical, his style at once gossipy and ironic, with the speed and lightness of Stendhal and the chivalry and enthusiasm of Dumas. His swift, decisive prose seems at first to render on his characters gadfly judgments that, with closer examination, turn out to be profound: a look, a line of dialogue, a facial feature seized upon and, by Besson’s knack for turning a phrase and then reprising it, made to provide a key to psychology. Describing an awkward conversation with Victor Hugo at a party, he writes, “If Srdjan was being hard on Hugo, it was because he was intimidated. Geniuses are accustomed to being spoken to harshly for this very reason, although it causes them pain, for they have created masterpieces in order to be loved, and have the impression of having secured the opposite effect.”

The Unbridled Orgy is not one of Patrick Besson’s best books. It’s a slim affair, and recounting as it does the antics of a sexagenarian literary laureate, reads a bit like Philip Roth lite—and more graphic, if possible. Like many of Besson’s works, it lives or dies on the verve and brio of its barbs, which grow fewer and farther between as the plot falls apart. Perhaps that is why the star of a sentence that starts this article—capacious, propulsive, summary, and melancholy—shines so brightly in this very uneven novel.

The sentence proceeds as a series of carefully handled paradoxes; opposites provide its forward thrust and balance. Boris is sad, Boris is happy; is Boris sad, or is he happy? What is truth and what fiction, what fact and what fraud, what private and what pretense? And along the way are limned a philosophy of writing, a philosophy of reading, and the trajectory of an entire life, or at least a sentimental education. It even grants its sellout subject, Boris, a memory of tenderness, and finds room for punny humor, making an heiress to furnaces (passion and iron!) the objective correlative for human warmth (since extinguished), especially with a family name that translates literally to “hot oven.”

Besson has a gift for parsing paradox but also the pleasures and pitfalls of compromise. For his characters, comfort and self-hatred go hand in hand, just like bitterness and self-awareness. Blunt but not dumb, judgmental but not damning—what else to expect from a writer who, in his responses to the Proust Questionnaire, described the main trait of his character as “intellectual brutality”? He writes too quickly, too often—a prolific profligacy perhaps peculiar to his kind of talent—as if the world were a personal wound he couldn’t keep from worrying. Every now and then he will say something so piercingly direct that you marvel no one has ever thought to say it before, so stunningly obvious is its appeal to emotion—and yet you’re sure he’s the first. Of a son a divorced father visits on weekends: “How could he ever have left him with a woman he no longer loved?” His writing is at once fearless yet vain about its own brilliance. Reading him can have the exhilaration of a sports match: one watches him racking up points with every swift, devastating gibe and observation.

To the best of my knowledge, Dara is the only Besson work to have been translated into English, in 1987, by Nicole Irving, for Franklin Watts. Chapterlong excerpts are available in translation from The Brotherhood of Consolation (Two Lines XV: Strange Harbors) and The River Will Kill the White Man (InTranslation and The Chattahoochee Review).

Edward Gauvin’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, Conjunctions, and PEN America, among others. He is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, Lerner, and Self Made Hero. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.

 


 

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