Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: Voice Over by Celine Curiol
We’re into the home stretch now . . . Over the next four days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Voice Over by Celine Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard. (France, Seven Stories)
Voice Over is a mesmerizing book. So well-done that it’s almost shocking that this is a debut novel from a writer still in her 30s. It was selected as a “French Voices” title (a program designed to highlight the best of contemporary French literature) and found a big fan in Paul Auster.
To some readers, this will seem like a typical French book—it centers around infidelity, and it seems like a book in which nothing really happens. Auster does a great job describing this novel in his introduction:
Voice Over is a story of obsession, alienation, and a descent into near madness. The central character, who works as a public address announcer at the Gare du Nord, falls for a man who is attached to another woman. Slowly and inexorably, something begins to happen between them—or almost. Such is the not so terribly complex plot of this deeply complex novel. Meanwhile, hundreds of events, both large and small, are recounted as Curiol’s damaged and poignant heroine goes about her life, which is filled with numerous random encounters with people as diverse as a female impersonator named Renee Risque, a forlorn African immigrant, a photographer with the delicious name of Olivier Chedubarum, and an actress who happens to have the same name she does.
It’s Curiol’s ability to, again cribbing from Auster, put “the reader both inside and outside at the same time” that makes this such a powerful book. We’re privy to the main characters thoughts, desires, and hopes, but also can see her as others do (a number of characters refer to her as “strange” or “weird” at one point or another), as she somewhat awkwardly—in a way can make the reader more than a bit anxious on her behalf—goes through life. This was one of those books where I actively empathized with the protagonist, secretly wishing things would work out for the best. It’s a very different book from, say, Toussaint’s Camera, another French title on the longlist, but one in which the character’s struggles are quite amusing, as are the very odd twists and turns of his mind. Instead, there’s a palpably feeling of despair and discomfort throughout Voice Over, that is quite affective.
For example, here’s a section from a dinner party she attends at the house of the man she’s fallen for:
She sees the hand of the man wit the stoop reaching out for her plate, on which some tiny puddles of a rich, dark sauce remain. Or did you want to mop up with some bread? Without waiting for her to reply, he whisks her plate away. She wonders whether to pretend to laugh or reward him for his effort. No thank you, she replies politely. She notices the table is being cleared; he hasn’t looked at her since that wink in the kitchen. Ange gets up with the pile of plates, he follows her out. With the couple momentarily gone, the delicately-spun bonds among the guests start to fray. The two husbands lower their voices and turn to their wives; the two bachelors slowly light cigarettes; for a few moments, everyone abandons his or her social role, enjoys a well-deserved mid-performance break. For a brief instant, she fears giving in to the physical urge to rush out the door. That damn silence is starting to get to her. They’re acting in a seven-man locked room drama, and it feels as if she’s the last dead woman who has yet to grasp the rules of hell. She pours herself another glass of red wine, which she forces herself to sip for appearances’ sake. Someone decides to open another bottle to put everyone a bit more at ease. Since they all know each other already and she is acquainted only with the hosts, she senses there will be no escape: she is in for a full-blown interrogation. With everybody listening religiously as though her life were somehow thrilling. And sure enough, the guy with the stoop makes an exceptional effort and asks her what she does for a living. By chance, the question falls during a lull in the conversation, and the entire group feels invited to stick their noses in: the six others wait for the rather unassuming girl at the end of the table to speak up; damn it, it’s about time she contributed a bit more to the discussion.
How she answers this question—she definitely doesn’t tell them that she makes announcements about the train schedule—sets a number of subplots in motion that are both funny, and a bit seedy. (It’s too difficult to explain this in full, but the real end of this subplot happens in a conversation with her somewhat lover and is a perfect example of the discrepancy between how others see her, and how the reader does.)
I’m really glad that this book made the longlist, and completely agree with Auster’s conclusion: “Take note. A superb new writer lives among us.”