A Life on Paper [BTBA Finalists]

With the announcement of the BTBA winners just a mere 15 days and 5-1/2 hours away, it seems like a good time to start reviewing the finalists.

First up is Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper, which just received a very enthusiastic write-up over at The Mookse and the Gripes.

Before the Best Translated Book Award put Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard’s A Life on Paper on its longlist (and now it’s a finalist), I had never heard of this French author, despite his long career (not that this surprises me). I hope to get to know his work much better, though that will require a lot of work from translators. So far, from my slight research online, A Life on Paper (tr. from the French by Edward Gauvin, 2010) is the only work of his to find its way to English. Thanks to Small Beer Press for bringing this one to our attention, and hopefully Edward Gauvin is working on some of Châteaureynard’s novels.

A Life on Paperis a collection of more than twenty short stories compiled from several collections Châteaureynard has published over a thirty-year period. Most of the story are very short indeed. I can’t emphasize this enough: it was a delight to read one or two a day over a month. While writing this review I was often reading a passage to quote and found myself still reading after a few pages.

Categorizing Châteaureynaud seems futile. He’s called a fabulist, but I think this is too limiting; frankly, some of his stories seem to be written just for the fun of it, with no metaphorical intent whatsoever. I would say he’s like Kafka — the bizarre happens in an every-day setting and the characters keep acting like it’s completely sane — only his tone is quite different, reminding me more of Melville’s story-telling style. Well, there’s no reason to categorize him, and I hope some passages from his stories will give a better sense of whether you’d enjoy this collection.

He goes on to quote from a few of the stories, including the titular story, which opens with

The Siegling-Brunet collection no doubt constitutes the most extensive gathering of photographs devoted to a single person. Kathrin Laetitia Siegling was born in London on January 12, 1939. On April 14, 1960, she died in Amiens, where she had moved with her husband François Brunet. She lived, then, some 7,750 days, during which, at the rate of some dozen shots every twenty-four hours, her picture was taken 93,284 times. To the best of my knowledge, the negatives were never preserved, but the 93,284 prints were.

and ends up focusing on Kathrin’s obsessive father, who took all 93,284 pictures.

Châteaureynaud’s stories truly are a delight, and I really hope Edward Gauvin is translating more of his work . . .

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