The Most Beautiful Book in the World: 8 Novellas is a collection of eight modern fairy tales. In each of the novellas, a sense of the fantastic intertwines with the mundane, sometimes enchantingly, sometimes crudely but still beguilingly.
The title story, for instance, transports the reader into the midst of a women’s gulag during Soviet rule. Tatyana and others who bunk together are determined to smuggle out messages to their children — all daughters, coincidentally or not. The women naturally worry about what they should write their children who are now most likely wards of the State. With a limit on the precious amount they may write, they agonize over what is most important. Then, the prisoner considered by the others to be “the most scatter-brained of them all, the most sentimental, the least headstrong” stuns everyone by being the first to get her message down. She is at utter peace with her choice of words. The others can’t help feeling jealous and very curious. What did she write?
“The Most Beautiful Book in the World” packs a nice emotional punch. The conclusion, in its Epilogue in the year 2005, imparts a fitting epiphany about how we human beings can communicate immensities with but a few choice words. It is a lovely comedy in the classic definition of the term: there is a triumph over adverse circumstances.
Immediately before the gulag folktale, the collection’s longest selection (thirty pages) has its turn. The title character in “Odette Toulemonde” has “a talent: joy.” Odette excitedly goes to a bookstore to buy the new book of her favorite author, Balthazar Balsan, and to have him autograph it for her. Odette, a lower middle class widow with two jobs gets so tongue-tied when she meets him that she can’t even speak her own name properly. Balsan’s books, she believes, showed her that ” ‘ in every life, no matter how miserable, there are reasons to be happy, to laugh, to love.’ ” Balthazar, a wealthy man with a troubled marriage and young son who is taking too much after his old man, goes through his own identity crisis soon after this book signing. In true fairy tale form, he and Odette meet again. But when their attachment may be going too far, Odette tells Balthazar, ” ‘Our paths may cross, but we can no longer meet each other.” Will that be the end of them, or are they destined for more?
“Odette Toulemonde” tries to point the way to balanced living. In “Every Reason to be Happy” a woman discovers her husband isn’t the man she thought and she has to decide how she will handle the startling revelations. In “The Forgery” the ability to trust is tested by two women with very different results. And what would any set of fairy tales be without “A Barefoot Princess” who may not be what she seems?
The leitmotif being forwarded in THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK IN THE WORLD by the author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is, arguably, that regardless of our histories, regardless of our economic status, regardless of our pettiness and self-centeredness, life often hands out teachable moments that can either make or break us. Truth, beauty, and especially happiness are ours if we possess the strength to see them everywhere.
Playwright, novelist, and short story/novella writer Schmitt, informs the reader in his Postscript, dated August 15, 2006, that he used free minutes between directing the screen version, Odette Toulemonde (original French ONLY Version No English Options)(for which he had also penned the screenplay), to write these stories. He explains that he’d been carrying them around in his “mind for a long time.” So, Schmitt didn’t have the luxury of endless hours in which to fine-tune his pacing or his prose. Although the plot ideas were pre-thought, his execution was impromptu. This unfinished quality accents each of the eight stories, and this insight about how these stories were written adds an intrinsic value to their recurrent “draft” feeling.
The back cover lauds Schmitt as “one of Europe’s most popular and best-selling authors.” Europa Editions is the first to publish short stories/novellas of his, translated by Alison Anderson. Schmitt’is fables — his fairy tales — give a tantalizing taste, but leave this reader wanting more. Some of his plays are available in English (Schmitt Plays: One (Contemporary Dramatists) (v. 1)), as is one other collection of novellas (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran & Oscar and the Lady in Pink) but what about his novels and other short stories? Perhaps we’ll see more of this author very soon…
Most Beautiful Book in the World The: 8 Novellas; Schmitt, Eric-Emmanuel; Europa Editions; $15.00