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NPR: "Schmitt works some powerful magic in these slim stories, proving that sincerity isn't the only route to truth."

Date: Sep 23 2010

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In "The Dreamer from Ostend," the opening story of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s collection The Woman with the Bouquet, a writer tells a passionate reader, "Nowadays, great value is placed on sincerity in literature. What a joke! ... Constructing a story, the art of attracting a reader’s interest, the gift of storytelling, the ability to see close up something that is far away, or to evoke without describing, the ability to give an illusion of reality — all of that has nothing to do with sincerity, and owes nothing to it."

 

This may as well be Schmitt speaking directly through his narrator, giving the world his personal writing manifesto. Because while the French Schmitt may be a best-selling author in Europe, his oeuvre is disconnected from the American preference for confessional writing, the memoir or the heavily autobiographical novel. All that he demands from great storytelling in that manifesto he accomplishes in the five tales that make up Bouquet. It’s more fantastical, more imaginative and much more romantic. And because of it, much more revealing of human character.

 

Romantic doesn’t have to mean mushy or sentimental. In fact there’s no mush at all — there is, instead, violence, pain, ecstasy and lives forever changed. The "dreamer" of the first story doesn’t brush herself off and move on after a cataclysmic affair; she sinks into her memories, barricading herself away and refusing every suitor. Two stories, "Getting Better" and "Trashy Reading," examine a woman and a man, respectively, who have been denied romance their entire existence. The woman turns her loneliness inward and gets mired in self-loathing; the man becomes bitter, cruel and delusional.

 

Schmitt’s elegant style might seem a little out of date — but out of date does not have to mean out of touch. It can also mean timeless. Schmitt winks at our discomfort with passion and eros and our contemporary preference for cynicism and irony. (I was picturing the characters in "The Dreamer" in Victorian garb, until someone in the piece was described as smashing plastic bottles for recycling.)

 

In the final story, a group of young adults marvels at an elderly woman who comes to the train station every day with a bouquet of flowers in her hand, waiting for someone who never arrives. They question her sanity, wonder who she could possibly be meeting. For all their teasing, though, they become obsessed with finding out her story, and her commitment brings to the surface all they are lacking in their lives. Like Schmitt’s narrator stand-in, we readers hold our place, peering in at lives changed by passion and drama and wondering what if. Schmitt works some powerful magic in these slim stories, proving that sincerity isn’t the only route to truth.

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