Despite author's eloquence, "Vie Française" falls short
"I mistook disenchantment for truth," Jean-Paul Sartre once said. Jean-Paul Dubois, a French novelist, journalist and travel writer, does...
Special to The Seattle Times
by Jean-Paul Dubois, translated by Linda Coverdale
Knopf, 276 pp., $24.95
"I mistook disenchantment for truth," Jean-Paul Sartre once said. Jean-Paul Dubois, a French novelist, journalist and travel writer, does this repeatedly in his rambling novel about a feeble French everyman.
Dubois frames "Vie Française" in chapters spanning the tenure of French presidents, from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac. Paul Blick, the 54-year-old narrator, resents politicians. In fact, he seems to resent anyone who has ambition for themselves or their country, because he has none.
Blick stumbles through life, observing and whining and not doing much about anything. Dubois apparently intends for Blick and those around him to reflect the decline of France. "Such was my family clan at the time: unpleasant, out of date, by turns reactionary and revolutionary, and terrifically sad. In a word, French. Yes, my family resembled our country ... "
Many of the characters in the novel seem to function more as illustrations of Blick's complaints than as fully imagined people. He describes his wife as being "like the times we lived in: insolent, greedy, anxious to possess, to have, to show off, to behave as if history were truly at an end." She cheats on Blick, not suprisingly.
Blick's politics are leftist, though he refuses to vote and appears contemptuous of leftists who act on their beliefs. He evades military service and shuns employment but makes a fortune photographing trees around the world, "the most magical and mysterious period of my life." This, of course, is the sort of endeavor that makes people rich only in far-fetched fiction.
Many are familiar with a seafarers joke about the United States Coast Guard warning a battleship away from a lighthouse. The lighthouse crewman tells the battleship to change course to avoid a collision, and the battleship captain responds by ordering the lighthouse to change course, not realizing, of course, that it's a lighthouse. Though the affiliation of the parties change depending on who is telling the joke, the point usually remains the same: Mother Nature is mightier than anything man can build and we sometimes arrogantly forget that.
Blick does not recognize the story as a joke and presents it as an "authentic" representation of "an exchange recorded in 1995 between Canadian authorities and the United States Navy." This typifies the ignorance or intellectual dishonesty of the narrator. His daughter, who eventually becomes mentally ill, has a "transcription" of this supposed exchange posted above her desk, believing it to be factual.
Blick's only redeeming trait is a good eye. Though he mostly loathes politics and people, he loves landscapes, and Dubois, an experienced writer, can recognize and describe natural beauty. Nice sentences alone, however, do not make for compelling literature. The fact that this flimsy book won the 2004 Prix Femina is a testament to how meager modern French literature has become.
Mark Lindquist's most recent novel is "The King of Methlehem."
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.