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“It was the day Michel Leiris died,” is the first sentence of Grégoire Bouillier’s second book, L’Invité mystère, finely translated as The Mystery Guest (MacMillan) by Lorin Stein. I had no idea who Michel Leiris was in 2004 when I read the book for the first time. I had occasion to reread the Bouillier the other day and liked it even more than I had back then. I’ve never bothered to grab the French version, trusting fully Stein’s English. You would too, I think, if you saw a little more of it. That first paragraph, complete:
It was the day Michel Leiris died. This would have been late September 1990, or maybe the very beginning of October, the date escapes me (whatever it was I can always look it up later on); in any case it was a Sunday, because I was home in the middle of the afternoon, and it was cold out, and I’d gone to sleep in all my clothes, wrapped up in a blanket, the way I generally did when I was home by myself. Cold and oblivion were all I was looking for at the time, but this didn’t worry me. Sooner or later, I knew, I’d rejoin the world of the living. Just not yet. I felt I had seen enough. Beings, things, landscapes . . . I had enough to last me for the next two hundred years and saw no reason to go hunting for new material. I didn’t want any more trouble.
I like the off-the-cuff, seemingly fireside, or more fittingly café-corner chattyness of Bouillier style as rendered by Stein. The parenthetical early on (a thing one is told not to do [parentheticals, I mean (given they tend to get in the way [of thought (which I do understand [however hard it is to resist them])])]) would be a red flag in a lesser paragraph, but for once a parenthetical feels properly like an aside. The paragraph is an example of good storytelling, in that it dangles little lures the reader will find hard not to pursue. Didn’t want “any more trouble”? Do tell!
I say all this because there’s a new Bouillier in stores right now, Report on Myself. It’s actually an earlier book of Bouillier’s (Rapport Sur Moi), which is just finally appearing. I haven’t read it yet, but its title certainly describes the essence of The Mystery Guest‘s charm: a reportorial eye on the little failures that make a life.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”