Friday, January 7, 2011

Nothing Serious, Justine Lèvy

Posted by lea at 3:30 PM
Justine Lèvy was my chosen author L for the Great Library Challenge.

I admit I chose the book based on the cover and the limited options in the library's L section. I had no idea that it was a literary sensation when first published in France in 2004 under the title Rien de Grave. It won the Prix Littéraire Le Vaudeville and overtook The Da Vinci Code in sales.

Having read the book, it's hard to fathom how the work in itself could achieve such a feat. It's a very intimate stream-of-consciousness story told from the point of view of Louise, the author of a well-received novel, daughter of a dizzyingly famous father, and whose husband has recently left her for his father's model girlfriend.

But couple the plot with the background of the author and you understand the sensation. Justine Lèvy's first work, Le Rendezvous, was published in the mid-90s to rave reviews, her father is France's most famous superstar philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, and her husband famously left her for his father's girlfriend, model and singer Carla Bruni (now France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy).

Her real life public scandal has been turned ingeniously into a novel, which at best is beautifully poetic, and at worst is mind-blowingly self-indulgent.

Nothing Serious starts at Louise's grandmother's funeral, where she finds herself in jeans and unable to cry. Both points are significant. She's in jeans because she feels like an 'ex-woman' since her husband's defection and can't bring herself to wear dresses anymore, and she can't cry because she's become incapable of emotion, an 'empty shell'.

The novel interweaves the events of the past (the unravelling of her marriage with Adrien) with her current life (in a relationship with new lover Pablo), revealing slowly the narcissism of her husband and her own severe insecurities. Both are overwhelming, so it's hard not to see the end of the marriage coming a mile away, even if you're as severely myopic as Louise is.

Her myopia acts metaphorically for her inability to see beyond herself, beyond her own state of loss and devastation, choosing to see and be seen as 'fuzzy, without outlines'.

What we see in the novel is the internal processing of loss. She writes most often about, and addresses passages, to Adrien. Some of these are transcendent prose:
He drags frantically on his cigarette, runs his hand through his hair, looks at himself in his watchface, and starts up again better than before, why he hesitates between Marxism and ultra-liberalism, his infallible painful memory, his memories that are poisoning him, his sadness, his melancholy, it's devouring me do you understand, it's consuming me.

At other times, her musings are terribly immature:

I tell myself I'll never love him, whatever he does, whatever he says, because love is atrocious, because love always stops one day and I never want to experience the death of love again.'

In a way, it's a novel about learning how to cope with life - or rather, how not to. Louise loses herself in her love for Adrien, turns to drugs to become the woman she thinks he wants in a desperate bid not to lose him, then dives into relationship after relationship to fill the void after he leaves.


*SPOILER ALERT BELOW:*

Ultimately, the author's... let's say 'youth' rather than 'immaturity' comes through rather strongly, though it's disguised as wisdom. It's a bit like Blues Clues - the paw prints aren't particularly subtle. She can't wear a dress because she's an ex-woman = at the end, Pablo buys her a dress. She hasn't had her periods in 7 years since the termination of her child with Adrien = in the end  her periods come back. She's myopic and doesn't want to see = in the end she decides to have eye surgery so she can see clearly. Also in the end, there's a sad acceptance that life is about loss, and shouldn't be taken seriously. Ironically, that's exactly what the novel does: it takes itself very seriously indeed.


*SPOILERS END*

You know how there's that theory that gay actors shouldn't receive the same accolades for a gay role as straight actors playing a gay role, because they're really playing real-to-life? I kinda feel that way about this novel. On first glance it seems like a searing and raw insight into a woman's post-divorce brokenness, crafted cleverly between the past and present to show her emotional state. But knowing that this was actually the author's own story makes me think it's really more a series of glorified diary entries, milked to create a thin plot.

It's kind of like Jennifer Aniston writing a book about an actress whose famous husband leaves her for another actress who adopts kids from all over the world. Now that would knock The Da Vinci Code and Twilight off the bestseller lists all over America, regardless of her writing talent.

Fortunately for Lèvy, she does have literary talent. However, both her books, for which she's received acclaim, have been bordering on diary-pilfering. I understand that people are best at writing what they know about, but I'd like to see how she goes writing a novel that's not based so closely on her own life.

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