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Words Without Borders: "These stories are also delightfully unexpected, shot through with breezy wit, and rendered in precise, unshowy prose, expertly translated by Alison Anderson."

Date: Aug 25 2009

from Words Without Borders

Contemporary French literature outclasses all other nationalities when it comes to melding the popular and the profound, as epitomized by Annie Ernaux's addictively cerebral TMI or Amélie Nothomb's highbrow whimsy. Now Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt—a novelist and playwright best known outside of Europe for his novella Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, which became a movie starring Omar Sharif—has written an exhilarating short story collection that fits squarely into this tradition. The eight plots in The Most Beautiful Book in the World are driven by, variously, sudden deaths, shocking revelations, and transformative epiphanies before reliably culminating with an edifying message, and as such provide a reassuringly soap opera-ish pleasure. But these stories are also delightfully unexpected, shot through with breezy wit, and rendered in precise, unshowy prose, expertly translated by Alison Anderson.

Schmitt's main focus is middle-aged women who are intelligent and thoughtful, but whose relationship with the world is not at all as it first appears, due to some intriguing idiosyncrasy or secret. To offer summaries with too much detail would spoil the twists on which the stories pivot, but madness, fake identities, catastrophic perfectionism, sexual dysfunction and of course that perennial French theme of the extra-marital affair all feature to dramatic effect. In the best stories, a jet-setting billionairess, trailed by an obsequious toy boy, finds redemption by bestowing riches on her first lover, whom forty years ago she had abandoned "[o]nce she knew that she had gained an encyclopedic knowledge of what goes on between a man and a woman in bed"; a bourgeois housewife realizes to her horror that her husband has had a parallel family, " a second home," for fifteen years, only for the reader to discover the sad and not entirely unjustifiable reason; and a spurned and poverty-stricken secretary is told that the priceless Picasso given to her by her married ex to keep her "sheltered from want" is a forgery—but is it?
Not all of the stories are quite as successful: a parable from the point of view of an aging actor in search of the woman with whom he had a youthful, blissful sexual encounter is simplistic and underwritten, and the final, title story, about women imprisoned in a Russian gulag who conspire to smuggle letters to their daughters, is conceptually original but mawkish in execution. But overall the stories, which exploit a chronologically ambitious scope in order to evoke the idea that the choices we make in the present moment distantly reverberate in unpredictable ways, are both engrossing and moving. While in a lesser author's hands the book's implicit edicts—money can't buy happiness, what we're searching for is often right in front of our eyes, beauty fades but kindness endures—would seem didactic or platitudinous, Schmitt's sharp and slightly skewed perspective, as well as his gift for the unexpected, makes for a genuinely fresh read.

The collection's penultimate story, "Odette Toulemonde," is, the author reveals in an afterword, based on a film he wrote and directed. In it a novelist named Balthazar Balsan, bestselling but critically reviled, is rescued from crises of both a professional and mid-life nature by a devoted fan, Odette. A widowed mother of two who works as "a shop assistant by day and a feather-maker by night," Odette is, despite her humble circumstances, a world-class expert on how to be happy. She inspires Balthazar to write a book entitled Other People's Happiness, whose characters' quest for happiness is unsuccessful because they've adopted clichéd ideas about the importance of pursuing wealth, glamour, and status. "They may be successful," says Balthazar, "but they're not happy, because what they are experiencing is other people's happiness, happiness according to other people." It's neither the most original nor the most erudite philosophy to use as a foundation for fiction but, particularly in times like these, it's a worthwhile one nevertheless.

by Emma Garman

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