Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Small Lives, by Pierre Michon
Reviewed by Richard Kalich
Trans. Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books, 2008. 250 pp. Paper: $15.00.
Rarely have I encountered a writer whose work felt so rewarding upon a first reading. Pierre Michon, the French novelist, is such a writer. In his novel, Small Lives, Michon takes us on a journey, tracking the lives of eight people in his search for his roots and place in his own family history. The stories span two centuries, but really they are timeless. In exploring these interconnected lives, Michon is on a journey to discover himself, and within this framework constantly asks the questions: What if? What might have been? What could be? In other words, Michon imagines what is possible within the human framework. Though stylistically challenging, the writing is textured and layered with singular depth and insight, poetry and profundity: so much so that it is difficult to single out any of the lives explored. Still, the life of Father Bandy, even though he is little more than a priest in a small French village, resonated with me as not only profound and timeless, but very much true to the contemporary blight we ourselves are experiencing on the human condition—with all the limitations, complexities, contradictions, and self-interest we see in so many of our corporate and world leaders today. In any given sentence Michon can take off from the prosaic and pedestrian on a flight that smacks of the visionary and aboriginally imaginative. Indeed, the real and imagined become interfused and interconnected and are more often than not indistinguishable for this author. If there is one leitmotif in these superlative stories, it is that of Michon himself, the man and the writer: learning, finding, evolving, becoming himself, relating his impotence, rage, regret, transfigured loss, aspiration, poetic glimmers, grandiosity, unbridled hopes and dreams, and ultimately finding his own voice—in short, all that being a writer is. Reading Small Lives, I felt profoundly that Michon was carrying the mark of a true writer: one who speaks in his own voice while conveying with all its immediacy and flesh and blood-possibility what it means to be human.