I fell in love with the first third of Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest on the subway while en route to meet some friends over the weekend.
Unfortunately, I was taking the book to one of the friends (who, thanks to me, has been roped into teaching a memoir class). I folded over the top of page 45 or so — the scene where our turtleneck-afflicted hero sees his ex-girlfriend for the first time since she dumped him without saying goodbye years before — and handed the slim, white volume over.*
Now my friend is holding it hostage until both he and his lovely wife finish. Fuck!
Bouillier (as translated by Lorin Stein) pares his prose back to the absolute minimum. He avoids the stale scene-setting realism of so much spare American fiction, conjuring up the psychological aftermath of a break-up so effectively and hilariously that I was tempted to pull out my own old relationship-ending correspondence and read it again, for laughs this time.
In the current Brooklyn Rail, Yann Nicol interviews the author, asking him, among other things, how he feels about coming to literature “relatively late” (i.e., 40). Says Bouillier:
I don’t feel as if I came late to literature. In fact I’ve always written and read. Even when I was painting, I wrote on the side. But it’s true that I didn’t make up my mind to publish until I was 40. This wasn’t an accident. In Rapport sur moi I explain that I’d always thought I would publish a book when I was 40 and not before, because when I was five and caught a staph infection, they put me in quarantine [quarantaine] at the hospital, and I think it must have been so traumatic for me as a little kid, being a boy in a bubble, that the word “quarantine” was etched in my brain. So deeply etched that I became convinced, unconsciously, that I’d never do anything worthwhile until I made it past 40 [quarantaine]. Who knows, maybe if they put people in “trentaine” [thirties] instead of “quarantaine” I’d have written something in my thirties (laughs). That’s the neurotic version. But there are other things I could say. In a world where being young is valued above all else, I wouldn’t have liked to be labeled a young writer, with the emphasis falling on “young” not “writer.” In my opinion the writer has to place himself or herself in a time outside societal time, and in this sense, it seems to me, writing a book when you’re 40 could even be called a vaguely — very vaguely — political act. Plus, I still think that to write something worth reading you have to have lived. You need to have been up against things and beings, love, death, etc. Living deflowers the eyes and the mind. It tests our mettle. Cioran said that no philosophy survives a bout of seasickness; he could never have written that sentence if he hadn’t spent a day being seasick.
* I considered lying and saying I’d forgotten it at home, which would’ve been far more usual than my showing up with the item promised, but I’d already lost the friend’s manuscript after promising for months to read and critique it, and even I don’t have the chutzpah to show up entirely empty-handed when I’ve been coasting on the unreliability train for this long.