I admit to being a little trepidatious about Tonino Benacquista’s novel The Thursday Night Men. I had just stopped reading a book halfway through where every female character was reduced to her sexual assets; if a woman was not supposed to be sexy, she was described as fat, hideous, monstrous, like an ogre. So a book about men talking about their women problems? Populated by a long string of prostitutes? It could have gone bad. Maxim magazine bad. Spur Posse bad.
But Benacquista is the man responsible for the beautiful movie The Beat That My Heart Skipped as well as a string of powerful noir novels. (Noir is another tricky genre, where women live mostly as damsels or femme fatales, without much nuance.) Thursday Night proved my fears unnecessary. Yes, men gather in a Parisian room every Thursday night, and have since the dawn of time, to listen and tell stories of heartbreak and confusion and woe. But it’s a marvelous novel—light, funny and genuine, while still being quite emotional.
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The novel follows a small handful of the men from this club as they try to recover from the shattering of a relationship. Along the way, we hear a number of stories of jealousy and infidelity, of hatred and sorrow, stories of men lost and lonely. I spoke with Benacquista about the women of his novel, and what he sees of the unhappiness springing from the changing relations between the sexes.
In the United States recently there was a comic book memoir that caused a lot of controversy because the man depicted his numerous interactions with prostitutes, but gave them no identities—to the point of they were drawn without faces. I thought of that as I read your novel, which is heavily populated by prostitutes, but did not experience the same feeling of disgust. When you were writing about the prostitutes, were you aware that this could go really wrong?
The protagonist of my novel has one goal: He wants to know every kind of woman—women of every shape and size, skin color, of every culture, of every ethnic origin. He wants to make love in every language. In order to achieve this fantasy of diversity, he, who works much and travels little, is forced to rely on prostitution. His relationship with these women is never sordid. He respects them and never looks down on them, which comes as a surprise to many of them.
I did not want to portray prostitution as it exists in reality; my novel is not an essay, nor is it a testament. It is a fiction. I simply wanted to tell the story of a man who wishes to multiply the women in his life, and to describe the many perturbations and excesses that this wish generates.
Your last couple books (the ones translated into English, at least) had a noir flavor. Is there something just as dramatic and high stakes for you in writing about men in various stages of romantic devastation?
I hope this novel is funnier than noir. In this Thursday night “club,” we see some men in dramatic situations, and others who are simply happy to come and chat. What I consider noir in this novel is found not in the subject, but in the form. In all of my novels, I preserve a noir rhythm, a way of treating fiction, of placing twists and resolutions, etc. Hitchcock said: “I treat love stories like thrillers, and thrillers like love stories.” And I agree with him completely.
Cultural critic Mark Simpson suggested that when men get together to celebrate masculinity, it quickly turns into a denigration of femininity. There was remarkably little of that in your novel—only one character really thought there was something sinister about women as a whole, and there was no violent language. As all of these stories unfolded, and as relations between men and women have gotten so confusing and strained, was there that pull towards the misogynistic?
I detest misogyny in its every form. The three men in the novel like to meet among themselves precisely because they agree with me!
I insist on this point: This novel is not about a “battle of the sexes.” I am always disappointed by stories that say, “Men are like this, women are like this, and the two are irreconcilable.” But it happens that men are thrown off by a sort of paradox they do not always understand: Women demand of them, rightly, to accept and encourage their independence. But women also demand of men to play the role of the man—intrepid, gallant, protective. In other words, they are completely lost when a woman says to them, “I can carry my suitcase perfectly well myself, but why don¹t you do it?”
Of all the men who told their stories in the gatherings, why follow these three men primarily? I did so want to find out what happened to the man who was asking for someone to hire someone to make his ex fall in love with them and then break her heart as an act of revenge.
Each of these characters asks a question that every man on earth has asked at one time or another with regard to women:
Every man asks himself whether he is meant to start a family, or whether he is meant to broaden his life experiences. (Lehaleur)
Every man asks himself, “Exactly who is this person who lives with me?” (Benitez)
Every man wants someday to seduce a woman, not because she pleases him, but because she represents a trophy. (St-Jean)
Otherwise, I do not know what has become of this man who wanted revenge. Perhaps the novel that tells his story has yet to be written?
I did wonder in the end whether any of these men had any idea what they wanted out of a relationship, other than these diffuse ideals of companionship and loyalty. Do you think any of them ended in better places than where they started?
In the end, these men are “reconciled”—not with women, but with each other.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.