Thomas loves Louise, a lawyer. Louise is married to Romain, a scientist. Louise loves Thomas. Yves, a writer, loves Anna. Anna, a psychiatrist, loves Yves, a man she found “unsettling.” Anna is married to Stan, an ophthalmologist. Thomas is Anna’s psychoanalyst. No, this isn’t an LSAT logic problem or a torrid soap opera. These are the characters that comprise Le Tellier’s urbane, au courant Paris comedy, a droll romp that is nevertheless intimate and complex within the playful pages. It’s packed with contagious quotes that you want to spread:
“Everyone should have analysis. It should be compulsory, like military service used to be.”
Or, let’s say you are jealous of a woman and want to share a canny reproach with a friend:
“She sees herself as slim, lives being slim as synonymous with being rigorous. Gaining weight, she is convinced, is always a lapse.”
Lots of light, saucy bon mots flash through this story, but there are small earthquakes that convulse now and then. At 228 pages and 51 short chapters (and an epilogue), most chapters are structured in pairs, such as “Thomas and Louise” and “Anna and Yves,” alluding to couples, as well as Abkhazian dominoes, a game that is close to Yves’ heart. “He is a writer who has readers, but not a true readership.” He may obscure himself further by titling his next novel after that titular game.
Throughout the wry novel, the coupling and uncoupling of husbands, wives, and lovers overlap and cross, and sometimes meet. The themes and ideas may be common but the characters are genuine and close. The dialog is inspired, not prepared or clichéd. The prose slides creamily off the tongue, like a filled croissant, and is peppered with paradox and the double entendre, pointed aphorisms and learned allusions. And life can be turned into aphorisms, instructs Thomas to his patient, Anna, as a way of fixing life into words.
“…what attracts us about another person has had more to do with what makes them fragile…Love is kindled by the weakness we perceive, the flaw we get in through, wouldn’t you say?”
There’s a gravitas that manifests subtly, an accretion of observations and details that examine love from every curve and angle. You can visualize this dialog-heavy book as a film, or a play. There is no way not to compare Le Tellier to the best of Woody Allen–a little bit Lubitsch, a little bit Jewish, some Annie Hall, some Stardust Memories, a profusion of Freud. But this is French, and you will imagine that you are walking through Jardin du Luxembourg or running across the Quai des Grands Augustins on a grey, Paris day. It’s eclectic, though, with American as well as other infusions. The savvy prose serves up a savory atmosphere, drifting through outdoor cafés and public squares. Some of the time, though, you are indoors, near a bookcase, and often a bed…
Cultural icons, such as François Truffaut, are included, not just as a reference, but as meaning to the story at hand. Thomas emails Louise, after they first meet, that doesn’t a scene in Stolen Kisses anticipate the future of email? But the scene he shares, in detail, is the buttering of his desires.
There is even a postmodernish, double-column chapter; on one side is Yves’ dry, but increasingly inventive lecture of the word “foreign,” with emphasis on the fact that the French have only one word for it, l’etranger. Juxtaposed on the other side is the cuckolded Stan, seated in the back row, agonized in a stream of invective consciousness. The linguistic stunt work by the author is more than a showcase; it concludes in a probing, poignant place of alarm and discovery.
The characters in these triangular love affairs share universal elements– sex and death, guilt and virtue, grief and ecstasy, illusion and certainty, passion and ennui. And, of course, love. But enough about love.
Eminent credit goes to Adriana Hunter for her luminous translation from the French.