Friday, October 1, 2010

Lapsed Time, Elapsed Memories

The novella 03 by French novelist Jean-Christophe Valtat--now available in translation from Farrar, Straus and Giroux--packages the thoughts of a pretentious teenager, who studies a mentally-challenged girl every day on his way to school. In another form--the short story or the novel--this narrative might just as easily have presented us with several scenes in which the boy encounters the girl or is caught watching her.

But Valtat is not content to simply have his teenager narrate interactions with the girl. The novella becomes a study in immediate reactions, informed through past experiences. The action of watching the girl transfers us from the curbside to the boy's memories, and an accordion shudder of reflections and recollections fold, unfold, and collapse: He recalls his own observations of adult sexuality, of interpersonal relationships, of solitude, of his own intellectual development and precociousness. (And it's little surprise that his cultural references range from Joy Division lyrics to Flowers for Algernon--an attempt to show that he belongs somewhere.)

Valtat displays a hallmark of the novella form: this compression of time and memory. Though only a quick glance passes in the narrative, memories elapse and take form. But it's not only the narrator's story that expands; he wonders as to what the girl's life is like, how it has effected her parents, how their entire life's narrative can exist in this single and singular glimpse. How do they live with their daughter in an institution? The narrator ponders:
When her mother and father were suddenly left alone, their daughter entrusted to some sort of institution, what was it like between them: Did they hold back sighs of relief, secretly wishing their time to themselves could last longer, or did they feel a yearning for her half-empty presence, this slender pail of the Danaids into which they poured all their attention, including the attention they had promised each other before, and had given up a luxury? Now they were parents of this rough muddled draft of a child: Was there between them the shadow of blame or else were they, in the English phrase, thick as thieves, united against the injustice for which they could never be held responsible (but then who could)?
Of course, all good fiction explores the inner psychology of its characters. Here, though, Valtat displays something the novella does particularly deftly: We move from the narrator's reflections, which collapse into this reflection, which in turn--like some particle exploding in a nuclear reaction--generates an expansive study of the story behind the story. Who is this girl? Where does she come from? And what is the life of which she's a part?

This trademark of the novella--this dimensionally transcendental quality in which a second can linger for pages, in which a moment can open into a more expansive narrative--offers us opportunities to perform our own literary explorations.


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