Sentences — February 19, 2009, 3:32 pm

Beings, Things, Landscapes

themysterguest

“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.

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Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

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