Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier

This French novella is a tasty lozenge of a book. Perfect for three hours on the plane.

Since being dumped by a girlfriend without explanation after a four year relationship the navel-gazing narrator was never able to get on with his life. Now, out of the blue, she calls and invites him to be the mystery guest at the birthday party of a conceptual artist friend of hers. Every year the artist makes a birthday party for herself and invites the exact number of guests corresponding to her age, with one mystery guest, someone unknown, like the extra candle on the birthday cake representing the year to come. He goes to the party expecting to confront the ex-girlfriend once and for all. He ends up confronting his own insecurities (seen oddly in his penchant for wearing tutleneck undershirts) and discovering that real life and fiction are more interconnected than he'd ever imagined.

To truly enjoy this novel you have to cut plenty of slack to the narrator's voice, rendered in a self-obsessed, hyper-sensitive Proustian style of prose; deeply "literate" (with a capital L, literary references play a significant part, particularly Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), passionate, and with a tinge of snobbishness that sometimes marks books written in the "language of love."

You have to appreciate moments like this, as he screws up his courage and rings the doorbell at the strange house, a bottle of vintage wine wrapped in tissue cradled in his arm as his birthday offering: "No buzzer buzzed. No echo greeted this act, which, it seemed, set nothing in motion, as if nothing had taken place, as if - in a word - I did not exist. And for a fraction of a second the world flickered before my eyes and grew dark. How could there only be silence when everything within me cried out that I'd done something tremendous." And it goes on.

The translator does an admirable job, although some phrasing doesn't quite make it into English intact. At times it feels like the translator is figureskating in construction boots. For example, "And I thought she must have noticed certain things about me, too, which she was keeping to herself and which couldn't have been all that pretty, either - and could it be that every second of this party would be a trial and an affront and a calvary of endless disillusionment?" Calvary of endless disillusionment?!

What saves the narrator from being completely insufferable are his insights and clever observations, like when he observes that none of the celebrities at the party look to him like celebrities. "To me they looked more like little bits of bread bobbing around and sinking in a bowl of milk."

Also the book's length is a saving grace. At a 126 pages it's like meeting someone at a party, chatting, sharing a few drinks, and departing before the buzz wears off and the company gets stale.

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