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The Times Literary Supplement Review: "The circle is neatly drawn; its pleasure is a cold one."

Date: Dec 18 2009

In the longest of the eight novellas in The Most Beautiful Book in the World, a shop assistant from a small town finally meets her hero, a novelist from Paris, and fluffs her lines. Her silly name,"Odette Toulemonde". which is also the title of the story, comes out as "Dette", and the bemused writer simply signs her copy of his latest work "For Dette". Embarrassment takes over; only his life is falling apart as hers is erupting with joy, and a whimsically romantic tale ensues.
 
There is little more to it than that, but "Odette Toulemonde" differs from the other seven pieces here in that it has another life, as a film directed by its author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. The film came before the short story, for, while filming in 2006, Schmitt rediscovered "the joy of clandestine writing". As in Schmitt's plays, with their carefully conventional stagecraft, the stories here have the clarity of a sequence of well-lit, well-shot scenes. In the first, "Wanda Winnipeg", a rich woman sweeps into a hotel, and the camera lingers on the trappings of money and power, and on her gorgeous obedient, young male escort. Then we get Wanda's history - Romania to riches via a sexual education in her teens, with the local Lothario. Lothario wants to succeed as an artist, and Wanda, in the moneyed present day, finds a way to repay him by giving him the critical recognition (and the cheques) he craves. The circle is neatly drawn; its pleasure is a cold one.

The same qualities appear in the next story, "A Fine Rainy Day", which is about a cynical woman - again, materialistic, successful - who finds her match in a trusting, optimistic man. When he dies, both her old cynical self and the contented- wife act that took over are locked up behind the pose of a grieving widow. The story's conceit does not quite work, however, and the same goes for the stories that feature, variously, a woman who finds a mysterious stranger in her flat, a cast-off mistress's consolation prize, a forged Picasso, and a woman who changes her hairdresser and discovers her husband's secret life. The tale of a beautiful girl who wears no shoes and a bad. besotted actor called Fabio has, of all things, a plot twist at the end. The title story is a concentration-camp narrative from Soviet Siberia, about imprisoned women trying to pass on messages to their daughters. It is more a tribute than a story, and its setting contrasts starkly with the hotels and hair salons of the preceding seven.

Schmitt's best-known work is The Visitor (1993), a play in which Sigmund Freud may or may not find that he has God on his couch. This new translation by Alison Anderson presents its human subjects with an appropriate, idiomatic lucidity.

By Michael Caines

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