The Most Beautiful Book in the World by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
by Edward Helfers
The last twelve months have smiled upon French literature, both critically and commercially. Last October, J.M.G. Le Clezio earned the Nobel for a catolog rivaling that of perennial worker bee Joyce Carol Oates: over twenty-five works of fiction, ten children’s books, three travel diaries, two translations, and a number of essays that necessitated intense field-work (for example, the four years Le Clezio spent among the Embera-Wounaan tribe of Panama). Not long afterward, Jonathan Littell made his international debut with The Kindly Ones, the fictional memoir of an SS officer that wooed L’Acadèmie Française and earned its author a multi-million dollar contract abroad.
Despite the buzz, fellow Prix Goncourt alum Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's latest effort has slipped under the radar with a slim little book that asks of its protagonists an ostensibly simple question: how to find dignity in the face of loss?
Masquerading as a compilation of eight novellas, The Most Beautiful Book in the World functions more as a collection of parables, using archetypes and sudden reversals to move swiftly through a morally fraught landscape. The majority of the parables are rooted in the lives of bourgeois Parisians, while the rest tour posh European venues, from the Riviera to the Landes Forest. They foreground women whose lives have been disrupted by illness, infidelity, infertility, and plain bad luck, and most end with an uplifting (if not predictable) turn.
In “The Barefoot Princess,” a washed up stage actor with the unfortunate name Fabio Fabbri returns to a medieval Sicilian village, where fifteen years before, still basking in the limelight of a successful T.V. miniseries, he slept with a young princess. Situations have changed for our Don Juan wannabe (he has long since been relegated to minor roles with the Green Snail Theatre Troupe) but as Fabbri retraces the steps of his tryst, wandering the cobblestone streets in a quixotic trance, he discovers the actual biography of his Dulcinea.
A philosopher by training, Schmitt delights in perspectival shifts, a theme he explored in his early plays Enigma Varations and The Visitor. True to form, many of these stories hinge on hidden narratives. For Schmitt, things are seldom as they appear; in fact, they’re often much the opposite. Unfortunately, it takes a chain of cataclysmic events for most of these characters to recognize their misperceptions. Were these true novellas, there might be enough space for the characters to ingest the seismic twists without retreating into melodrama. Yet because Schmitt crams Life-Changing Events together so closely together, it becomes hard to avoid viewing the characters as a function of their circumstances, at once passive and flippant.
How much of this can be attributed to the translation is unclear, but there are enough blips in Alison Anderson’s word choice to give us pause. Take, for example, the pyschiatrist who consoles Isabelle, the infertile narrator of Schmitt’s sole first person story, “Every Reason to be Happy.” After Isabelle shares news of her husband’s philandering, the physciatrist reveals that he has known for many years:
Yes, he loves you. Samuel may still be a man like any other, a normal man who needs to penetrate a woman’s flesh and have children, but he loves you and continues to love you. He could not bring himself to leave you. Besides…your marriage has taught him to behave like a saint. This justifies his desire to have other experiences outside your marriage.
The superfluity of “loves” and “continues to love” notwithstanding, can English-speakers really be expected to read “penetrate a woman’s flesh” with a straight face?
Unfortunately, this sort of incongruency applies to the characters as well. In “The Forgery,” Aimée, a Parisian secretary, is thrust into financial hardship when her boss and long-time lover retires to the South of France with his family. From the beginning of the story, we see Aimée play out a series of caricatures—blasé mistress, scorned lover, jobless drifter, and finally embittered landlady. When towards the end Aimée wills a forged Picasso to her sole remaining tenant, supposedly out of spite, it is an act that seems inconsistent with the malaise and resignation she has shown for the previous ten pages. All too conveniently our grizzled spinster turns merry prankster.
Schmitt’s other heroines feel just as two-dimensional: the OCD lawyer Helene, the gold-digging divorcée Wanda, the effusive fanclub president Odette. While flatness may seem a prerequisite for any good parable (after all, what do we know of the emperor beyond his vanity?) these characters too easily abandon their flaws, as if all along they have secretly been waiting to recant. This highlights an axiom implicit in the works of successful allegorists, from Orwell and Stenbeick to Ursula K. Le Guin and Jose Saramago: a moral argument is often more poignant when the character fails to realize it.
In Schmitt’s case, because we expect the formulaic come-uppances, and because the characters completely fulfill our expectations, we are all the more willing to brush aside painful truths that might otherwise linger. We know that Helene will loosen up, that Wanda will show generosity, that Odette will find self respect, exactly why so few of the revelations seem revelatory.
The Most Beautiful Book in the World, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Translated by Alison Anderson
EUROPA EDITIONS, 2009