Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s material of choice tends toward the haunted: singing mummies, walking corpses, men who’ve grown wings. Despite that, one of the strangest things to be said about A Life on Paper is that it’s the first book the author has published in English. This unavailability to American readers, however, has nothing to do with lack of recognition in his native language. Born in Paris in 1947, Châteaureynaud has released nearly two dozen books and won several literary prizes in France, including the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle, while his translator, Edward Gauvin, has said in interviews that Châteaureynaud “deserves to be in the pantheon of 20th-century authors who have broadened and deepened the literary possibilities of the contemporary fantasy.”
A Life on Paper is a collection of selected stories spanning this four decade career, from the mid-1970s to the 2000s. The book is slim but not slight at just over 200 pages. It includes no translator’s preface explaining how or why these stories were chosen, only a brief foreword by the American novelist Brian Evenson assuring us that what we hold is a “representative sampling” of the author’s work. All the pieces here are fairly short, generally not more than ten pages. The sentences are clean and straightforward, the flights of logic bizarre and sometimes dazzling. There is some Borges, some Kafka, and some Hans Christian Andersen moving through these stories. At times even some Barthelme. In general the main characters are male, while the tone is flat and dream-like, mixing mythological and fairytale imagery with an alienated contemporary consciousness.
“The Gulf of the Years” is one of the more viscerally moving stories in the collection. In it a man appears back in the village of his youth during WWII, an hour before his mother was killed by an errant bomb. We see the man waiting on the street, watching anxiously for himself as a boy on the way to school. When he finds the boy he convinces him that he—the man—is a lost family relative and takes the boy back home to his mother. Here the man takes in the sensations of his mother and his childhood home for the last time, before the bomb sirens sound and they huddle together in the cellar, waiting for the “events once gone astray [...] to resume their rightful course.” Despite the unfortunate echoes of Back to the Future (it is hard not to think of Marty McFly frantically dodging his future self), “The Gulf of the Years” is a genuinely affecting story.
Other pieces such as “Delaunay the Broker” prove the author’s ability to craft the uncanny into a compelling mystery. “A Room on the Abyss” mixes a fairy-tale worldview with contemporary realism to strong effect. And “The Excursion” refashions the story of the Sirens into an unexpected critique of contemporary society.
If these stories have a flaw, it is that Châteaureynaud sometimes wraps the ends up too tight. In “The Guardicci Masterpiece” a man buys a female mummy from a taxidermist. Before long the mummy comes alive and begins demanding the man’s time and attention. When the man takes a woman as his lover, conflict ensues, resulting in a wonderful climax in which the mummy throws herself on the fire. It is a great story: funny, sad, revealing. Yet, as he occasionally does, the author goes on too long and tells us a little too much—in this case, how the man later cashed in the insurance policy on the mummy and used the money to buy wedding rings for himself and the woman. While this urge towards neatness and on-the-nose statement of meaning could be charitably read as allusion to fairytales (or in the case of the “The Guardicci Masterpiece,” maybe just the desire for a good joke), it feels outdated and in a small way diminishes the beauty of the images.
That being said, Châteaureynaud is a very funny writer. His stories are full of sadness and terror and strange existential predicaments, but they also consistently turn up moments of ironic and moving humor. In “The Dolceola Player,” the main character comes back to his hometown after leaving at a young age to venture out and impress himself upon the world. “Why ever did you pick that instrument?” his mother asks him at the dinner table the night of his return. “Maman,” he responds:
Can I help it if the dolceola only reaches a limited audience? God himself put it in my hands. He made it, so someone has to play it. There were only two dolceola virtuosos and, ever since the other one died, I’m the best—the greatest! All these years I’ve given concerts in all the capitals of the world!
There is a beat—a paragraph break—before the narrator adds: “It was true he’d given a concert in every capital, in front of thirty people.” It is a wonderfully phrased and perfectly timed moment, so deftly puncturing the character’s inflated claim that we laugh at and pity him all at once.
In a way it’s hard not to see the dolceola player as a comment on the author himself. For several decades, despite his success in France, Châteaureynaud’s audience has been limited by his work remaining unavailable in English. Now, with the publication of A Life on Paper, he has the opportunity to reach an entirely new readership.
February 6, 2011