This Is Not About Me
Why do novelists write novels about novelists? Maylis Besserie presents the thoughts of an elderly gentleman from another generation, someone removed from her by era, gender and nationality, and thus asserts, in defiance of current orthodoxy, the independence of artistic creation.
Le tiers temps, by Maylis Besserie, Gallimard, 184 pp, €18, ISBN: 978-2072878398
On May 11th, the week that bookshops opened in France after the first lockdown, there was an item on the evening radio news: the Goncourt prize for a first novel was awarded to Le tiers temps, a story about Samuel Beckett’s last months in a nursing home of the same name, near to where he had lived for many years before. The Goncourt prize is a prestigious literary prize roughly equivalent to the Booker prize, except with more categories. To date, eleven publishers worldwide have acquired translation rights but, so far, no English language publisher has done so. Statistics show that the lack of translation into English, compared with other languages, is nothing new. It is perhaps surprising that there is no interest in translating this book into English because, despite some odd moments, it is an interesting fiction that English speakers would enjoy. The author uses her radio-producing skills to create a polyphonic world with a collage of distinct and interweaving documents and voices: first-person observation and reminiscence, reports by a variety of medical personnel, dialogue, a radio broadcast about Waiting for Godot, even a police report from 1938 when Beckett was randomly attacked in the street and hopitalised.
The juxtaposition of each typographically and stylistically distinct panel imparts a lightness to the narration. There are many moments of absurd humour, for instance when Madame Pérouse, a fellow resident in the nursing home, takes an interest in the unsociable Beckett who hides under the sheets in his room while she calls out to him from the corridor.
Qui est cette dingue qui bêle à ma porte ? À moins que ce soit moi qui suis complètement piqué ? Je vais allumer la lumière. Non, si je l’allume, elle saura que je suis éveillé. Je vais l’éteindre. Elle n’est pas allumée, je veux dire la lampe. La dingo quant à elle frappe encore, je veux dire à la porte.
(Who’s this madwoman bellowing at my door? Unless it’s me and I’m completely nuts? I’ll light the lamp. No, if I turn it on, she’ll know I’m awake. I’ll turn it off. It isn’t lit, I mean the lamp. As for the dingbat she’s still banging, I mean knocking at the door.)
At one point the protagonist reflects on his own acerbic sense of humour, best summed up by the French adjective grinçant: “Il faut toujours que ça grince, là où on ne s’y attend pas. Rire qui frotte, qui fait toujours un peu mal.” (It always has to be dark, when you least expect it. A caustic humour that always hurts a little.)
The medical reports, in their comic mix of styles, where professional jargon is used to describe the micromanagement of the most banal activities, at times recreate the strange poetry of Beckett’s own novels and plays. Here is a typical example, signed by “K.L. psychologist”.
EVALUATION DE L’AUTONOMIE DE M. BECKETT
30 juillet 1989
Monsieur Beckett assure seul les transferts « lever, assis, coucher » (sans aide de matériel, en prenant appui sur le mobilier de son environnement : bras de fauteuil, lit, table).
sans avoir à lui dire, à lui rappeler, à lui expliquer, à lui montrer ;
en assurant l’ensemble des transferts dans les deux sens ;
sans se mettre en danger ;
chaque fois que cela est nécessaire et souhaité.)
EVALUATION OF MR BECKETT’S INDEPENDENCE
July 30th, 1989
Mr Beckett can carry out unaided the transferring tasks, ‘getting up, sitting, lying down’ (without equipment and by using the furniture around him: armchair, bed, table).
without having to be told, reminded, or shown;
by carrying out all the movements in both directions;
without endangering himself;
whenever it is necessary and desirable.)
This novel could be said to belong to the genre of end-of-life fiction. These are writings about ageing, increasingly in the richer countries set in nursing homes. When challenged by a member of staff about a minor infraction of the care home rules, the protagonist hides under his oxygen mask while reflecting aphoristically.
En cas d’enquiquinement, la seule véritable arme du vieux est de mourir ou de procéder à une riposte passive.
(When people are annoying, the only real weapon that the old person has is to die or to proceed to passive retaliation.)
The name of the retirement home, Le tiers temps, is a reminder of the expression le troisième âge, which in French is the equivalent of the seventh and last stage of life in English. Les personnes or gens du troisième âge are senior citizens, older people or the elderly. Education centres for older people are called les universités du troisième âge, sometimes rather awkwardly referred to in English as universities of the third age. If the names we give to retirement homes reflect our attitudes to ageing, being old and dying then Le tiers temps as a name seems rather matter of fact: this is the last stage of your life.
Yet a more poignant reason for the title is that the book is divided into three movements: premier temps takes place in July 1989 when the protagonist is fit and able to go out for walks, despite having Parkinson’s disease; in deuxième temps, in August 1989, he goes to the dentist, recalls happy days with friends and his wife in his country cottage in Ussy and receives a visit from his publisher; finally in troisième temps, in December 1989, he is very seriously ill in the neurology department at the hôpital Sainte-Anne. During his last moment of life, he revisits in his mind’s eye Film, his work starring Buster Keaton. Despite the physical decline and ending of life the memories are lucid right up to the last page.
One wonders whether we really need another book about Beckett after all the biographies and criticism, not to mention his own works about the last stage of life such as Malone meurt/ Malone Dies. Maybe the best way to approach this book is to see it as belonging to a different and increasingly common genre of fiction, that of novels about novelists. Examples include Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) and David Lodge’s A Man of Parts (HG Wells). If we were to include novels about fictional novelists, this would expand the category even more. We could consider invented writers like Proust’s Bergotte, along with the embedded imitations of the two Goncourt brothers, realist novelists, diarists and historians of their times, who figure in À la recherche du temps perdu.
To what extent is Le tiers temps biography or fiction? In interviews, Maylis Besserie is at pains to remind readers that the book is fictional. There is, after all, a separate Goncourt prize for the category of biography which was won this year by Thierry Thomas for his biography of Hugo Pratt, comic book creator of Corto Maltese. (In an incestuous twist, two other biographies that were contenders for the Goncourt biography prize were about the Goncourt brothers.) In a postscript to Le tiers temps the author explicitly comes forward to address the question of biography.
Certes Samuel Beckett a bien existé, certes il a fini ses jours dans une maison de retraite nommée le Tiers-Temps, à Paris où il vivait exilé depuis un demi-siècle. Pourtant ce livre est un roman. Mon entreprise n’est pas biographique. Elle a consisté à faire de Beckett, à partir de faits réels et imaginaires, un personnage face à sa fin, semblable à ceux qui peuplent son œuvre.
(Of course, Samuel Beckett really existed, of course he spent his last days in a retirement home called the Tiers-Temps, in Paris where he had been living in exile for half a century. However, this book is a novel. My aim is not to write a biography. I wanted, by using real and imaginary facts, to create in Beckett a character facing his last days, like those who populate his work.)
And yet throughout, Le tiers temps presents clashes between real-life facts and imagined ones. The photo of Beckett on the cover invites a biographical pact between reader and subject. The reader can do an internet search of Le Tiers Temps and discover that here really is a retirement home, or EHPAD (Établissement d’hébergement pour personnes âgées dépendantes) of that name in the fourteenth arrondissement in Paris. The story is peppered with numerous facts and references to real lives and literary history. Because it follows the protagonist’s memories it is haunted by the figures of Joyce and his daughter Lucia. The leitmotif of Joyce as l’homme de plume (plume being a feather or a pen) links to the bird imagery throughout. Beckett’s mother, May, and his wife, Suzanne, also feature. In contrast with David Lodge, who provides a substantial bibliography at the end of A Man of Parts, including several source biographies of Wells, Maylis Besserie is more freewheeling with background research. Lack of bibliographical research, which might be viewed as a shortcoming, can also be an advantage because playing with fact and fiction allows for ,inventiveness and creativity. It is a relief that the book is not freighted by too much information, whether literary or historical, contrary to many critical writings about Beckett which can all too frequently be heavy going.
However, at times for the Dublin reader, anachronisms and improbable details can trigger an alienation effect. The Dublin of this book is very much the Dublin of this century. There are several references to the Dart, a train that did not exist during the periods described. The train that the young Beckett would have taken into town followed a different route. It was the old Bray-Harcourt Street line that was closed in 1958. A station on this line is possibly the location for Beckett’s radio play All that Fall, written in 1957, where Maddy Rooney waits with her husband Dan. It would be as if an Irish novelist writing about Paul Éluard or Sartre had them taking the RER into the centre of Paris. At one point the older Beckett recalls an occasion when his younger self had his cheddar sandwich attacked by seagulls beside the Liffey. While this incident feeds into the recurring bird imagery, gulls attacking Dubliners for their sandwiches are a very recent phenomenon. There are other moments that are unconvincing from a cultural point of view. Shadowing the “gurgles of outflow” and the fragmented voices at the end of Malone Dies, the story fades out with the Irish lullaby Seothín Seó, quoted in full along with an English translation, which is hardly likely to figure in Beckett’s memories. Yet it can also be argued that for the reader not encumbered by such thoughts, this fiction, by using biographical realities in order to launch into its own imaginary realm, draws attention to itself as a kind of conjuring act. And while such details can at times test the Dublin reader’s suspension of disbelief, this is hardly likely to be the case for the French-speaking reader.
In his book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, Pierre Bayard stresses the importance of the novel-reader’s subjectivity, and shows how the reader can interpret latent and manifest textual meaning in diverging ways. It follows that readings will differ depending on what is considered to be historical or imaginary fact, truth or invention. Literature contains multiple layers of meaning which are created not only by the complexity of its forms but also by the fact that the reader, as Bayard puts it, makes subjective intrusions into the text by constructing unprecedented interpretations. This perhaps explains why novels are so different and so fresh when we reread them many years later.
The whole genre of novels about novelists raises the question of reader response. Of course readers in France will receive this text differently because their Beckett is a different kind of national treasure from ours. The Irish Beckett figures on linen tea towels and has contributed catchphrases to the lexicon (“Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, “ … you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”). The French Beckett on the other hand is perceived as a distinguished Irish gentleman writing in French, a Nobel Prize winner associated with Roger Blin and the experimental theatre of the 1950s and with the publishing house Éditions de Minuit from the same decade onwards.
When it comes to novels about novelists the less one knows about the writer protagonist the better. What is attractive about these fictions is that they explore the protagonist’s inner mind. The four years of Henry James’s life that feature in The Master (James’s relationships with his siblings and his disappointment at the failure of his foray into the theatre) are surely more fascinating if the reader knows very little about the historical Henry James, while David Lodge’s A Man of Parts is enjoyable if you want to get a feel for the conventions and transgressions of Edwardian England or the machinations of the Fabian Society. But the novel form also allows David Lodge to explore, from the inside, the cognitive dissonance in Wells between his political feminism and his actual multiple relationships with women much younger than himself who were dazzled by the world-renowned writer but who were risking far more than he. However, for the reader who has read books by the writer in question, or biographies about them and histories of their times, there is the risk that these fictions can jar.
To conclude, and to return to the question of why novelists write novels about other novelists, there are several possible answers. In some instances, and Le tiers temps seems to be a case in point, novels about novelists can be a form of literary apprenticeship, where one writer shadows another. In Le tiers temps there are many echoes, both formal and stylistic, from Malone Dies: a death takes place both at the beginning and the end and there are turns of phrase common to both novels:
J’ai si peu de mots. Ils sont tous usés jusqu’à la moelle. On ne le croirait pas comme ça, mais ça s’use les mots. Comme les fonds de culotte. Comme le cœur.
(I’ve so few words. They’re all worn to the bone. You wouldn’t think it, but words wear out. Like the seat of your pants. Like the heart.)
For Proust’s hero in À la recherche du temps perdu, admiration for other writers, whether they are real or imaginary ones, starts out as idolatry and moves on to imitation and pastiche, a practising in the style of another, until finally the writer no longer needs a co-pilot and can fly on his own.
Another explanation is that the novelist subject can be an alter ego who provides an escape route for the author from navel-gazing solipsism. Writing about another writer runs counter to much contemporary fiction that, perhaps under the influence of social media, has incorporated autobiography and essay into the storytelling. In the age of the selfie, and of performing the self for visual media, novels about novelists offer a relief because they allow the writer to explore and imagine inner thoughts and feelings. An attractive quality of Le tiers temps is its interiority. Apart from a few leitmotifs there is very little description or visual imagery. The tree and the artificial grass of the nursing home are simply there, like a pared down stage set. Reading the book is predominantly an auditory experience of diverse voices, of the protagonist thinking aloud and remembering, of the snatches of dialogue between the residents and staff of the nursing home, and of the distinct styles of the various written reports. It is refreshing that Le tiers temps can in no way be interpreted as being about the author herself. Writers must grow tired of their characters and narrators being read as the voice of the author.
This leads to a third possible explanation. We live in a literal age that has seen a growth of what could be termed “issues about” fiction, writing which presents an overt commentary on societal questions or on situations of political conflict. In 2008 Mads Thomsen observed the rise of “traumatic literature” of wars and conflicts and pointed to the parallels between the literature of causes and the preoccupations of political blogs. Already back in 1990 Stephen Owen, in his essay about world poetry, noted that readers of international literature come in search of windows upon other cultural phenomena, “looking for some exotic religious tradition or political struggle”. Nowadays the reader closing a novel can say, that was a book about a news item, date rape, abduction or genocide. The message is all important. All the other features of a book, cultural specifics, formal quirkiness or plasticity of language are quickly forgotten. This is fiction that is easily translatable (into English) for a global market, good for book club discussion and media debate. But there also needs to be room made for novels that appeal to the solitary reader, that present a leap of the imagination and inner states of mind and that are not overtly about something.
Literal interpretations of issues about fiction also give rise to questions of authenticity: does it have to be a woman novelist who writes about the menopause? Is it appropriate for a writer originally from Sudan to write about Rwanda? In this context, choosing to write about another writer gives the imagination free rein because it suspends these questions of ethical unease about identity, for a while at least. In Le tiers temps, Maylis Besserie presents the thoughts of an elderly gentleman from another generation, someone removed from her by era, gender and nationality. An enjoyable feature of the novel is the protagonist’s use of puns and quaint, slightly dated French colloquialisms. (Translators will have fun with this.) Imaginative literature by its nature entails psychological thought experiments and listening to the voices of others. It is the ultimate escape from having to identify oneself, justify and explain oneself and a subtle way of asserting the independence of artistic creation. Nobody in the literal age can tell a writer that they have no business writing about another of their profession.
Kathleen Shields lives in Dublin. Until recently she lectured in French at Maynooth University.