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Mostly Fiction: "Very entertaining."

Date: Sep 27 2010

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The woman stands on platform number three in the Zurich railway station with a bouquet. She’s been doing the same thing for fifteen years according to the locals. Whom is she so patiently waiting to meet? Does she expect a representative of love or death to alight from the railcar?


In this title short story, “The Woman with the Bouquet,” Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt blends his trademark elements of fairy tale romance, pathos, and fatedness. It radiates mystery and romanticism but also a ghostly bit of menace, and it cuts to a marrow of sorrow. It appeals to our curiosity about the “obsessing” people in this world who will not be moved from their own missions, and simultaneously it reminds us that time spent waiting for something is time not spent doing something else more “constructive.” Loyalty and love would seem to be the motivators of the woman, but perhaps she just is retiring from the world by standing there every day?


The Woman with the Bouquet contains, besides the story just discussed, one novella and three other short stories. It opens with the novella, “The Dreamer from Ostend,” about Emma Van A., an old woman who “must have been very beautiful” but due to a recent cerebral hemorrhage, “her muscles had melted” and her “joints were ravaged by arthritis.” Emma secreted herself in her father’s library of classics and “read in order not to find herself alone and adrift…not to fill a spiritual void but to accompany an all too powerful capacity to create.” Although very secretive about her past apparently devoid of lovers, she relents and tells her history to a writer (the novella’s narrator) who is a boarder in her house, trying to recover from his recent romantic breakup. Hers is a fantastic tale of a secret love that reminds the writer of Cinderella (without the happily-ever-after ending). He has the temerity to tell Emma he doubts her. “The Dreamer of Ostend” is a modern fairy tale infused with literary and psychological insights. The question of whether Emma was indeed beautiful as a young woman comes up, and the narrator doesn’t see how the world order he knows could have handed her the romantic adventure she claims. Emma’s “need” to read only books by dead, “tested” writers is a way she tries to stay out of the present and remain dreamily in the past she claims for herself. Yet she hoped to perpetuate her past by passing it on to the writer. Will he find a reason to be persuaded after all?


“Perfect Crime” begins with a decades-married couple hiking on a high cliff: “The winding path grew perilously narrow a hundred yards further up the slope overlooking the valley.” The wife, Gabrielle, has been feeding her own suspicions about her husband for some time, and now she looks around and, seeing no witnesses, decides it is time to send her husband into the abyss. This is Gabrielle’s story of the aftermath of that decisive moment. Her husband kept secrets from her and she needs to find out once and for all what sins against her they prove. She also has to reevaluate the venomous advice she got from a woman called Paulette who once told her about men that “you really have to push them to the brink to see what they’re made of.” In “Perfect Crime” Schmitt gives us a woman whose suspicious mind and inability to be happy may have led her far, far astray.


Schmitt sometimes focuses on people who are very self-conscious about their appearance and who sequester themselves from life as a result. “Getting Better” carries that theme. A Parisian nurse who is has low self-esteem and considers herself “in the fat lump category,” is startled when a paralyzed and blind male patient tells her, “Lucky me, to have such a pretty woman looking after me…” By caring for him, she knows he was a virile and handsome man before he became so incapacitated. And his women were model perfect to judge by the ones who come to visit him. So why does this man who can’t see or touch her think she is pretty? Asking herself this question causes her to make changes in her wardrobe and her outlook. But is she exchanging withdrawal from the world for an unrealizable attachment? Will love grow fully or be pruned into something else?


And then there is “Trashy Reading,” a manic, black spoof about the “consequences” of reading eight-hundred page blockbuster novels by writers with single-syllable names like “Chris Black” and “Dan West.” Maurice Plisson, a professor with no private life to speak of, tells one of his students scornfully, “Stuff and nonsense!…Those who write novels are writing for a population of idle women, no one else….You see, novels reflect the reign of the arbitrary, complete vagueness. I’m a serious man. I don’t have the place, or the time, or the energy to devote to such nonsense.” Well, of course this stuffed shirt, while on holiday with his female cousin, is drawn like iron filings to a magnet to a trashy novel she buys: The Chamber of Dark Secrets. And that turns Maurice’s previously staid life into one in which he sees danger, intrigue, and murderers all around him.


The Woman with the Bouquet deals with characters who limit themselves by pomposity, pride, fear, insecurity, and suppressed anger. Yet, into the lives of these fragmented, sometimes broken people come extraordinary (even miraculous) events that inspire them to break out of their cocoons and take wing. The results run the gamut from transcendence to tragedy.


Schmitt’s previous Europa Editions volume of stories, The Most Beautiful Book in the World, had a draft feel to it because Schmitt had written most of it hurriedly during the filming of the title story. This collection, although it features many similar themes, feels more finished, more polished. One can quibble with a few of the author’s plot decisions (particularly, in “Perfect Crime,” the revelation of a much touted secret of the husband’s — it falls short of expectations). However, this set of stories is very entertaining and arguably creates its own niche in literature because it melds a number of genres so unconventionally. I enjoyed it.

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