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Mostly Fiction Book Review: "Truth, beauty, and especially happiness are ours if we possess the strength to see them everywhere."

Date: Nov 2 2009

The Most Beautiful Book in the World is a collection of eight modern fairy tales. In each of the novellas, a sense of the fantastic intertwines with the mundane, sometimes enchantingly, sometimes crudely but still beguilingly.

The title story, for instance, transports the reader into the midst of a women’s gulag during Soviet rule where the inmates suspiciously eye the newcomer, Olga. She might, after all, be an informer. But the talk of the day is about her hair which is either “horrible” or “magnificent” depending upon the prisoner opining. The women think she is from the Caucasus because Olga’s hair is “a thick mane…frizzy, robust, course.” Yet one of the leaders in the camp, Tatyana, wants to get close to Olga and test her trustworthiness. Tatyana and others who bunk together are determined to smuggle out messages to their children — all daughters, coincidentally or not. Despite the strictly-enforced ban on the possession of writing materials, they have hit upon an ingenious way to “create” paper, but have no pens or ink. Tatyana is convinced Olga is the answer to their prayers in that department. Here this tale veers into the improbable (I won’t say exactly how), but let’s just say the guards aren’t as thorough in fables as in real life. Anyway, just get past that and let the rest of the story unfold to ample reward. The women naturally worry about what they should write their children who are now most likely wards of the State. With a limit on the precious amount they may write, they agonize over what is most important. Then, the prisoner considered by the others to be “the most scatter-brained of them all, the most sentimental, the least headstrong” stuns everyone by being the first to get her message down. She is at utter peace with her choice of words. The others can’t help feeling jealous and very curious. What did she write?

“The Most Beautiful Book in the World” touches on many themes: a) Whether women in repressive regimes ought to be political activists or “simply keep quiet…and immerse themselves in domestic values?” b) The mistake made when judging people by appearances; c) The wisdom of simplicity; d) How inventive people can be when they deem it necessary. And so on. Weighed in terms of literary finesse, and how fully it explored the themes introduced, one can argue this short story comes up somewhat short. However, it packs a mighty nice emotional punch. The conclusion, in its Epilogue in the year 2005, imparts a fitting epiphany about how we human beings can communicate immensities with but a few choice words. It is a lovely comedy in the classic definition of the term: there is a triumph over adverse circumstances.

Immediately before the gulag folktale, the collection’s longest selection (thirty pages) has its turn. The title character in “Odette Toulemonde” has “a talent: joy. In her deepest self, it was as if there were a non-stop jazz band playing lively tunes, pulsating melodies. No hardship seemed to get her down….Since humility and modesty were part of her personality, no matter what the circumstances she rarely felt frustrated.” Odette excitedly goes to a bookstore to buy the new book of her favorite author, Balthazar Balsan, and to have him autograph it for her. Odette, a lower middle class widow with two jobs, two teenagers, and a modest apartment in a low income/welfare building, gets so tongue-tied when she meets him that she can’t even speak her own name properly. Balsan’s books, she believes, showed her that “in every life, no matter how miserable, there are reasons to be happy, to laugh, to love.” Balthazar, a wealthy but rather empty man with a troubled marriage and young son who is taking too much after his old man, goes through his own identity crisis soon after this book signing. In true fairy tale form, he ends up staying with Odette and her family for a while. The question is can or should these two people have more to do with each other? In one pivotal talk together, Odette tells Balthazar, “Our paths may cross, but we can no longer meet each other.” Will that be the end of them, or are they destined for more?

The stories in The Most Beautiful Book in the World often embrace irony, rely on incredible turns of fate and misunderstanding, and contain characters who say one thing but actually feel another. Many of the tales float on almost magical clouds of romanticism and a tentative idealism. Yet, the thunder and lightning of life constantly show themselves too. “Odette Toulemonde” tries to point the way to balanced living, but “happily ever after” isn’t the endgame; instead, it’s a recognition of self and the ability to know when to grab for the brass ring and when to hold back, when to understand that if the brass ring isn’t within reach, maybe an iron one is. In “Every Reason to be Happy” a woman discovers her husband isn’t the man she thought and she has to decide how she will handle the startling revelations. The Wanda of “Wanda Winnipeg” is a rich, selfish woman indelibly marked by an older artist from whom she’d madly desired to learn lovemaking when she was young. Can she do something equally momentous for him now? In “The Forgery” the ability to trust is tested by two women with very different results. And what would any set of fairy tales be without “A Barefoot Princess” who may not be what she seems? Each story feels unreal on some level. And some are morose, some ugly, some more upbeat. Each in its own way also strikes notes of resonance and invokes human value.

Psychologically, each story delves into motivations, not always entirely convincingly. Fears, insecurities, trust, and belief play through the generally broadly written and sometimes quirkily inconsistent — but captivating — characters. Often, the reader will have little idea where the story will lead. Deaths occur. Lies morph as they pass from one person to another. But the leitmotif being passed forward by the author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is, arguably, that regardless of our histories, regardless of our economic status, regardless of our pettiness and self-centeredness, life often hands out teachable moments that can either make or break us. Truth, beauty, and especially happiness are ours if we possess the strength to see them everywhere.

Playwright, novelist, and short story/novella writer Schmitt, informs the reader in his Postscript, dated August 15, 2006, that he used free minutes between directing the screen version, Odette Toulemonde (for which he had also penned the screenplay), to write these stories. He explains that he’d been carrying them around in his “mind for a long time.” He adds, “‘This allowed me to rediscover the joy of clandestine writing, the one I’d known as an adolescent; filling the pages brought back an appetite for secret pleasures.” This appetite outs in The Most Beautiful Book in the World in such ardent phrases as “…after they had brushed against each other once too often, and he had kissed and dried the tears on her eyelashes or under her lips.” His characters display muted eroticism and less muted passion. However, the greater insight has perhaps to do with artistically technical matters than with secret pleasures. Schmitt didn’t have the luxury of endless hours in which to fine-tune his pacing or his prose. Although the plot ideas were pre-thought, his execution was impromptu. This unfinished quality accents each of the eight stories, although “Odette Toulemonde” — being his movie — presents with the most polish. Once one understands how these stories were written, their “draft” feeling isn’t bothersome (at least it isn’t to my mind).

The back cover lauds Schmitt as “one of Europe’s most popular and best-selling authors.” Europa Editions is the first to publish short stories/novellas of his, and they are translated by Alison Anderson. Unfortunately, Schmitt’s companion film, Odette Toulemonde, isn’t available with English options — yet. Schmitt’is fables — his fairy tales — give a tantalizing taste, but leave this reader wanting more. Some of his plays are available in English, but what about his novels and other short stories? It would be interesting to see his talent from a wider angle and read material he did not jot out in a hurry between movie takes. Perhaps we’ll see more of this author in partnership with Europa Editions?

Review by Kirstin Merrihew

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