February 2006

John Detrixhe


The Company of Ghosts by Lydie Salvayre

Most people I know don't read prefaces or forwards. I usually don't. But in this case I made an exception. The Company of Ghosts, by Lydie Salvayre, is a delightful novel, and so is its Translator's Preface, by Christopher Woodall. He says in his first sentence: "As a form of creative writing, literary translation entails a quite peculiar amalgam of freedom and constraint... the translator is blissfully free to concentrate on word choice, idiom, syntax, the sound and rhythm of the new text -- in a word, its style." Umberto Eco jokingly once said that sometimes his books are better in translation. But in the case of Ghosts, it seems that both the author and translator must have taken great care with this text.

Ghosts is a challenging book, weaving lines of Vichy France's history into a contemporary story that is constructed much like a play. The structure is unusual, so much so that at first I found the story interesting but not compelling. I can't say exactly what it was that changed my mind. But over time my predjudices broke down until I discovered that the narrative has a unique, precise flow and a lyricism that propels the story even without the traditional dialogue that often drives a novel. Its structure works.

The novel takes place in a Paris apartment, and there are three principal characters: Rose Mélie and her eighteen-year old daughter Louisiane, and an intrusive process-server who is itemizing their apartment's articles for repossession to pay owed rent. The itemization is as humiliating as one would expect, and it creeps at an even pace throughout the novel. Rose and Louisiane's possessions are mostly worn furniture, books, and other household items, and there isn't anything of substantial value for the process-server to appraise. The result is more punitive than practical. These details are unsettling, and the story rests on some of the darker elements of human nature and France's recent history, but it finds a way to be humorous -- albeit usually an uncomfortable, wrenching humor that at times makes the reader feel guilty for laughing.

But if the itemization of their apartment provides tension, it's Rose's instability and recollections that continually torque the story. Her delusions center on her constantly reliving the horrors of World War II, and she insists that France is still as it was when controlled by Pétain, a puppet of Nazi-controlled Vichy France. Rose's memories are narrated by Louisiane, who has heard it all too many times, and as the story develops Rose is convinced that the process-server is a representative of Pétain's government. Perhaps the essence of her paranoia and of Ghosts itself is explained in this line by Louisiane: "...my mother has been continually returning to that year of 1943 which was at once the year of her brother's death, of Putain's glory, and the reign of Bousquet-Darnand, as though her
entire life, my entire life, all lives were condensed in these events..."

Rose is, as her own mother was, a lonely and powerless dissenter, and Louisiane is much like a collaborator -- she attempts to minimize the situation with courtesy and flirtation toward the process-server. Her efforts are of course disregarded by the bureaucrat who is dedicated to his disfigured cause. Louisiane's attempts at cooperative manipulation are as pathetic and useless as her mother's belligerence, but she lacks the tiny, if somewhat mad, bit of dignity that her mother refuses to relinquish.

Meanwhile, Louisiane's life is as sad as her mother's. Her role as a caregiver, and the dominance of her mother's presence, has left her naive and inexperienced, even for an eighteen-year-old. Most of what little she knows about life has come from television and books, and, what's worse, she's intelligent and perceptive enough to understand how empty her life is. Her occasional escapes in the form of prescription drugs stolen from her mother seem understandable, and her acting out toward her mother, while sad and painful, is almost to be expected: "I felt a secret satisfaction, I grabbed her hand and squeezed it hard while applying a slight twist to the knuckles." Louisiane's world is one where pain is so commonplace and accepted that it is merely wearisome, and her narrative is often laced with dark humor that is typical of Ghosts: "Her screaming wakes her up. And me, too. Which drives me crazy."

The characters speak largely without acknowledging one another, and each exists in a role that is compartmentalized and alienated to his or her own perspective. This includes the process-server who hardly speaks at all except to ask an occasional question. His actions are automatic, and his thoughts are only shared in a separate, final section: Some Useful Advice for the Apprentice Process-Servers. His remarks are revealing if not surprising, and the final section only reinforces that Rose's instincts, while certainly delusional, weren't completely off the mark.

I adore this book for its prose and its content, but its stage-like rendering is its most original and defining characteristic. A work that reckons with the history and the present and touches the reader in such a personal way is remarkable. It is certainly a sad and frequently difficult telling, and if it weren't for the guilty, sometimes sardonic, humor that lofts the story just inches above despair, it might not be a pleasurable read. But it doesn't stumble, and it maintains itself with careful pacing and a structure that is ideal for its purpose.

The Company of Ghosts by Lydie Salvayre
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564783502
184 pages