If Eugène Ionesco had written Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” he might have produced something very like this terse, teasing novel
It follows into English translation the veteran French author’s My Big Apartment (winner of the prestigious Prix Médicis) and A Cleaning Woman (the source of a recent film). It features an unnamed narrator about whom we know initially only that he suffers from a perpetual cold, which isn’t disabling, but does complicate his relationships with women: notably Laure, with whom he lives, and who’s accompanying him on a trip to the home of the narrator’s old friend Philippe to help celebrate the latter’s 50th birthday. In a subversively neutral voice, the narrator recounts how Laure takes ill, remains in the hotel where they had stopped en route and later returns home—as the narrator, resigned to attending Philippe’s party alone, hitches a ride with an amicable stranger (Gilles); is befriended by the latter and his wife and invited to Gilles’s birthday party (surely an innocent coincidence); meets a woman (Florence) who casually seduces him, then drives him to the threshold of his original destination—which can be reached only by boat. What he discovers in Philippe’s house, and during a subsequent visit to a nearby hospital, confirms the narrator’s paradoxical certainty that “Everything had happened just as I had decided it would.” Indeed. The book sneaks up on the reader skillfully, portraying its narrator as an introverted worrywart who first finds ominous resonance in offhand statements and quotidian occurrences (exactly as in a Ionesco play, incidentally), then gradually accepts that the “party” from which circumstance seemed determined to keep him is in fact an occasion of the utmost—and ultimate—personal significance to him.
Eccentric, elusive and at times explosively funny. A lucid allegorical gem.