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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[Browsings]

There was no slant to the sun — it was just there, overhead, burning, making him sweat, making his underwear bind and the shirt stick to his back as if it had been glued on, and why he’d ever let Carolee talk him into this he’d never know. The bus lurched. There was a stink of diesel. Gears ratcheted beneath the floorboards, metal on metal, as if they were going to fuse or maybe explode into a thousand pieces at any moment. He looked beyond Carolee, out the window, feeling ever so slightly queasy, though everyone assured him the water was good here — potable, that was the word on everybody’s lips. Plus, the food was held to the highest standards and the glasses out of which they’d sipped their rum punch and rum Cokes and rum tonics had been scrupulously washed in hot sudsing pristine well water, because this wasn’t like Mexico or Guatemala or Belize, this was special, orderly, clean, a kind of tourist paradise. And cheap. Cheap too.

On top of it all, he had a headache. Or the beginnings of one. But that was understandable, because he’d gulped down three rum punches with lunch, so thirsty he could have drained the whole pitcher the waiter had set in the middle of the table, and no, he wasn’t going to drink the water, no matter what anybody said — not unless it came from a bottle with an unbroken seal. He rubbed his eyes. He had aspirin in his kit back on the ship. Cipro too. But that didn’t do him a whole lot of good now, did it? Anonymous streets rolled by, shops, people, dogs, ratty-looking birds infesting the trees and an armed guard outside every store — or tienda, as his guidebook had it — and what did that tell you about the level of orderliness here? Buenos vecinos. Welcome. Mi casa es su casa.

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