Life is Short and Desire Endless
The endearingly (and intentionally) peculiar tone of Patrick Lapeyre’s Life is Short and Desire Endless complements the subject matter of the novel very well. Nora Neville, a flighty and immature young woman, flits manically between two men (Murphy Blomdale, a successful American businessman in London and a married French translator in Paris, Louis Bleriot, who barely scrapes by off the charity of his prominent wife and his friends), and potentially countless unnamed others. The story of their intertwined affairs is the classic love triangle, yet Lapeyre manages to make it more confusing, more twisted, and somehow even more alluring, with the strange childish tone that has a slight biting edge, much like the character of Nora herself.
The strength of this novel does not come from its action. In fact, very little happens within the narrative. The story unfolds through the character’s fantasies, looking back on their interactions with Nora, and to be honest, many of the scenarios are not that exciting. And yet that’s what makes the psychological dimension of this novel captivating—it’s highly identifiable. The novel opens to Louis receiving a call from Nora after she has been gone without a trace for two years (unbeknownst to him, living with her American lover in London and maybe others along the way, as well). Then we become immersed in the action, as Nora oscillates from one lover to another somewhat predictably. When one’s generosity seems to wane, she flings herself to the other, frequently begging for charity, sometimes playing innocent and denying affections, and always managing to maintain an air of mystery and untruth (being a self-proclaimed, but very unsuccessful, actress). There is not really much more to it.
Yet the story can be frustrating at times, because the strange tone takes even stranger turns, breaking the fourth wall several times:
It’s highly likely that if she’d never know she would be featured stark naked in a novel, Nora would have refused to take her clothes off. And she would have done everything in her power to make sure that, instead, her taste for Chekov’s theater or Bonnard’s paintings was mentioned.
At first, it’s not evident whether this is an issue with the translation from French. It seems perhaps too bizarre even for the grating tone the novel establishes as early as its very first page, so much that these instances seem jarring. Because of this, the final chapter of the novel seems equally out of place: it is uncharacteristically vague, suggesting different possibilities for the characters that were not presented in the novel, and does not mesh well with the highly detailed character development that is presented. And upon first glance, it’s unsatisfying. No character’s story wraps up neatly. It bothered me initially, upon reading and rereading the final few pages, that the book’s conclusion was so open and so vague. It didn’t conform to my literary expectations.
But this book is unlike any other that I’ve recently read. Many of the characters are unlikeable, but somehow strangely alluring because the reader is able to connect with their quirks, and even more so, their faults. The tone and the strong character development allows the reader to acknowledge all of the possibilities presented in this broadly sweeping ending because the characters are very believable. While at first I didn’t know what to think of the strange instances where the fourth wall was broken, it in a sense seems appropriate for the novel to acknowledge itself as a work of fiction. It complements Nora’s character because the men truly do not know whether anything she says is the truth, or whether she is, in fact, creating her own fiction (as Lapeyre is creating this novel).
Beyond that, the book really is entertaining. There are many false leads, bountiful odd occurrences that lead the reader into paranoia along with the characters, that ultimately build to… Nothing. Because that is the nature of paranoia, and the men in love with Nora are driven insane by their passion for her. All of the shortcomings I initially found with the book were quickly resolved upon a deeper consideration. And then I was really just stunned by how well-crafted this novel was.
I encourage you to take a look at the many possible interpretations of this novel, and report back with which you find most alluring.