On November 21, the International Fiction Book Club met for the 31st time to discuss the novel 13 rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro. Ms. Shapiro lived in Paris until she was 13 years of age and then moved to the States with her family. Though written in English, this novel is entirely French, both in setting and character of style. I say character of style because it is through a peculiar style that characters gradually emerge. Or do they only seem to emerge?
French novelists of the 20th century often explored the boundaries of what a novel could be. The Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) was formed in 1960 by the acclaimed novelist, Raymond Queneau, and nine other writers, mathematicians, professors and so-called pataphysicians (after Alfred Jarry). Their raison d’être was to analyze traditional literary forms and constraints in an effort to create new language structures based on a relationship between mathematics and literature. Sound bizarre? Well, some of their preoccupations are best left to a select group of intellectuals. However, the games these thinkers play have led to a number of literary masterpieces by Queneau himself, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among others. The first comment made by one book club member was that this book reminded him of Perec’s novel, Life: A Users Manual. Having also read that book, I knew what he meant. Though, strictly speaking, the mathematics of this novel might not be defined in Oulipian concepts, the spirit of constraint and making a novel out of a box of memorabilia is surely in the Oulipian spirit.
As a young girl Mauli Shapiro lived in an apartment house in Paris. An old woman with no interested relatives died alone in the same building. The landlord allowed tenants to take her belongings and the author’s mother took a box of mementos that included love letters, photographs, church gloves, a rosary and other evocative objects dating from the 1st World War through the mid-50s. This box of memories gave Mauli Shapiro incentive to create a story to go along with the objects and also a way to re-discover her lost childhood. As we discussed, what first appeared as a gimmick, the inclusion of scans of the objects at various times in the book, becomes a fascinating addition to the conceit within a conceit that the author so deftly weaves. When confronting the first couple of scans of a letter, handwritten in French, and a photo of a man you are immediately involved but a tad suspicious. As we later find out we have reason to be suspicious though that does not become fully evident till the end.
A secretary at a university, Josianne, plays a little game of seduction with newly hired professors that she finds attractive. Upon their arrival, she is the one who assigns their office. As bait, she places the box of mementos in a filing cabinet where the professor is sure to find it. She has had several conquests before the American, Trevor Stratton, takes center stage in her trap. When he shows her a picture of men in uniform posing for a WW 1 photo she points out how effeminate the British soldiers look. When he questions her about how she knows they are British, she explains that the dark uniforms are British and the grey uniforms are French. How did Josianne know this? Was it explained to her by a previous suitor who fell into her trap? Trevor never lets the reader know for sure how much he has figured out as he writes letters addressed to “Dear Sir” explaining his project of trying to determine the fate of the original owner of the box, Louise Brunet.
Over the course of the book we gradually enter into the life of Louise Brunet. At various times, the author plays tricks with narration as Trevor enters into Louise’s life and also has an affair with Josianne. But, is this story real? Is Trevor the seduced or the seducer? These questions and many more will be answered only if you read the book. All present declared the book an easy read and I pronounced it a small masterpiece in the Oulipian tradition. From her website, the author explains “people often get caught up in plot, in the broad scope of what happens, but its how it happens on the micro level that actually makes the story. Fiction is really all in the delivery too.”
We will next meet on December 19th to discuss Malinche by Laura Esquivel. Feel free to check out a copy at the front desk and join us.
Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk