A Life on Paper: Stories
In reading this marvelous selection of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s short fiction, I could not help but reminisce about childhood nights spent huddled near a campfire, seated at the feet of an elder and listening, enraptured, to ghost stories. Like those master storytellers whose haunting tales were exaggerated by the play of their hands over the flame, Châteaureynaud makes expert thematic use of both light and shadow to reveal his fantastical realms of wonder and fear. His unassuming prose startles as it entrances, holding readers on the edge of elegantly rendered, fantastical dream-worlds while all at once alluding to their more nightmarish qualities. In the style of Kafka and Poe, Châteaureynaud makes the supernatural seem not only present, but ubiquitous, inclined to encroach at any moment on the humdrum lives of unsuspecting mortals. More sinister than fairy tales, yet not quite definable as horror stories, Châteaureynaud’s whimsical writings leave one unsettled and alert, appreciating anew the possibilities of the chilly night air while simultaneously feeling the urge to draw nearer to the fire—just in case.
There are no consequential clashes in Châteaureynaud’s stories, nor heroic exploits. These are Everyman stories, brushes of ordinary individuals with forces beyond their control and explanation. Protagonists may be shaken, inspired, perplexed, and disturbed by these encounters, but they are rarely surprised. This is one of the distinguishing and most enjoyable marks of Châteaureynaud’s prose—in a recurring device akin to magical realism, the author abruptly introduces a maverick element into an otherwise banal scenario, but the arrival of this supernatural intervention is accommodated by characters without much shock or disbelief. In “La Tête,” a doctor is visited by a patient who carries a still-cognizant talking head around in a sack. The physician’s reaction exemplifies Châteaureynaud’s approach to such bizarre events:
The free play of its functions . . . was considerably impaired. But the simple fact that these manifested themselves at all flew in the face of what the entire medical establishment took for granted. That said, I am a progressive and an optimist; if it’s proven tomorrow that babies will henceforth be born from their mothers’ ears, that’s where I’ll await them. The decapitated head spoke? So be it!
Châteaureynaud’s characters remain similarly unflappable under a whole host of remarkable and surreal circumstances. In “Icarus Saved from the Skies,” a man develops miniature feathered wings, but refuses any attempts at flight, much to the chagrin of his proud wife. In “The Only Mortal,” a tryst with a forest-dwelling seductress causes an indelible (and distressing) message to appear on a young soldier’s skin. In “The Guardicci Masterpiece,” a woman must compete with a crooning, reanimated adolescent mummy for her lover’s attention. The extraordinary crops up spontaneously in people’s lives, occasionally wreaking permanent alteration, but more often than not simply fading away just as unceremoniously as it came.
In other stories, magic is confined to the peripheries, seeming to exist solely in a single character’s perception of a tragic or painful situation. In these, Châteaureynaud compellingly plays with the fine line between imagination and delusion, with the power and isolation inherent to subjectivity, and with the endlessly creative narratives we weave for ourselves in order to better cope with loss. In a few cases, these boundaries completely break down; Châteaureynaud denies characters the chance to raise rosy justifications around their peculiar behaviors, and instead exposes them for what they are: absurd, unsettling, even mad. In the titular story, a man bereft at the death of his wife resolves to oppose “time’s acid tides” by photographing his daughter at systematic intervals. By the time she hits 20, he has catalogued over 93,200 images of her life, and not without doing considerable damage to the girl’s psychology. The border between fantasy and obsession in these stories is never fixed, and some of the humans in Châteaureynaud’s fiction rival his ghosts, goblins, and spooks in their ability to make a reader shiver.
Perhaps it is for that reason that some of the most successful stories in this collection—a sampling chosen from other 30 years of Châteaureynaud’s work—focus not on the mysteries of the supernatural, which the author never seeks to rationalize, but on the intricacies of his human subjects. Whether taken metaphorically or literally, the vignettes in which mystical interludes catalyze or coincide with poignant emotional development in lead protagonists are some of Châteaureynaud’s richest and most memorable.
Another interesting aspect of Châteaureynaud’s work is its flexibility with time and setting. In the 22 stories included in A Life on Paper: Stories, backdrops range from the medieval to the contemporary, with segments located in urban as well as remote country landscapes. Châteaureynaud moves easily between specific historical moments and more transcendent locales, demonstrating his ability to craft stories that are both timely and timeless. The context of World War II is of direct importance to “The Gulf of the Years,” for instance, while “Sweet Street” and “The Peacocks” could happen any time.
Châteaureynaud’s prose is even and smooth, so tranquil at times it is almost hypnotic. Edward Gauvin’s translation pays careful attention to switches in tone and dialect, maintaining the discrepancy between the author’s own voice and those of his more casual characters. In addition to the stories available here, Châteaureynaud has penned nearly one hundred more, as well as eleven novels, two for young adults. An established figure in France, and an active member of several organizations that recognize literary excellence, Châteaureynaud has already seen his work translated into fourteen other languages. A Life on Paper: Stories will certainly be a welcome addition to many English-speakers’ libraries.