A Life on Paper

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud

If the name Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud does not trip off the tongue it is not simply because of its interminable length: A Life on Paper, a selection of stories covering over thirty years, is the first time his work has appeared in English. This might explain Chateaureynaud’s rather stern glance on the front cover, looking uncannily like Kurt Vonnegut, a writer with which he shares more than a physical similarity, though from this collection his work appears both more subtle and more varied. As Brian Evenson says in his introduction, “Some stories shade far into the fantastic: others seem realistic except for one brief moment or lingering doubt.” Occasionally a story will begin with the fantasy element in the foreground, such as ‘Icarus Saved from the Skies’, where, if the title were not clue enough, we are told on the first page that the narrator “sprouted wings.” More commonly, however, the fantastic will slowly reveal itself, sometimes only lurking at the corner of a story, glimpsed but never seen in full light.

A good example of the latter is ‘The Peacocks’. It begins in a relatively ordinary fashion:

“We were living in a house in the country, Marie and I and two peacocks.”

As it progresses, however, there are hints that the world they live in is not our world but some apocalyptic vision of the future:

“We’d inherited all humanity had to offer. Books, music, paintings – they were all ours. At first, Marie put on a different dress each time she put another record on the player.”

Notice how quickly Chateaureynaud moves from the general to the particular. (In fact, he uses clothes throughout the story for verisimilitude). At no point does he offer any explanation for the situation the couple find themselves in, which seems to be that they are the last two humans alive, and the story ends as mysteriously as it began with the narrator walking away naked from their burning home:

“Right from my first tottering steps, the gravel on the roadbed and the cracks in the asphalt cut into my bare feet. Then came the rocks, the twigs, the razor grass along the embankment, and, further off, the high and spoiled wheat among the brambles.”

A science fiction premise is also used to great effect in one of my favourite stories, ‘The Gulf of the Years’. Again it begins in ordinary fashion with a man on a train. His knowledge of the future is not entirely clear at first: “The bombing wouldn’t start till later that morning,” may simply imply a regular event; “And yet, in a few hours one of them would kill his mother,” is placed in such a way it may be the authorial voice rather than the character’s. Gradually, however, we come to realise that Manoir is there to visit his younger self:

“You’re Jean-Jacques Manoir, aren’t you? Right? You don’t know me, but I know all about you. You’re eight years old, in third grade, and your teacher’s name is Mr Crepon. He’s got a tiny moustache and is very strict.”

Chateaureynaud’s interest in time travel (never mentioned in the story) is emotional rather than cerebral, with the focus on Manoir’s conversations with his child self and his mother. The story ends without any clear indication of why Manoir has travelled back in time, with an ambiguous final sentence which again is as much about emotional resonance as clarifying whether Manoir intends to save his mother.

Other stories borrow from other genres. Both ‘The Pest’ and ‘La Tete’ have pickpocketed an idea or two from the horror story: ‘The Pest’ is a variation on the double, and ‘La Tete’ features a severed head which refuses to die. ‘The Beautiful Coalwoman’ reads like a fable Calvino might write, with a knight lured onto an island by a beautiful woman said to be over one hundred years old. ‘Ecorcheville’ is a strange clash of genres featuring a man whose death is foretold by a gypsy and an automated suicide machine. A number of the stories simply take an idea and play with it: a house where everything is made of concrete; a street that no-one can find; a city of museums where the homeless hide. In each case Chateaureynaud builds from our everyday experience until he creates something quite different.

Given the quality of these stories, it is a wonder that they have taken so long to reach an English-speaking audience, and then only thanks to their translator Edward Gauvin and Small Beer Press. Hopefully more will follow.

Danger rating: despite the often bewildering originality of the stories, Chateaureynaud’s presentation is gentle, one might even say insidious, as if he were whispering these tales just for you.

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