Reading Lydie Salvayre

Context N°13

by Warren Motte

Surging up out of the narcissistic 1990s, Lydie Salvayre’s writing is like a breath of fresh air. Two aspects of her work are truly distinctive: her gaze and her voice, that is, the way she sees and the way she speaks. Looking around her at contemporary French society, Salvayre is scandalized and appalled by what she sees. Her glance is a particularly incisive one; she has (to borrow a phrase from P. G. Wodehouse) an eye that would open an oyster at ten paces. Cutting through the official Panglossian discourse that trumpets France’s prosperity and social progress, she sees a culture afflicted by widespread alienation, inequity, and institutional brutality. Putting those phenomena squarely on stage in her novels, she forces her readers to confront aspects of French social organization that they might have preferred to overlook. That is not to say that Salvayre is some knee-jerk, doctrinaire social realist. Quite to the contrary, her work is finely nuanced, comic at times, insistently mordant, and uncompromisingly ironic. It lacks nothing but tact, and it represents a kind of littérature engagée that we have not seen for quite some time because, frankly, our canons of taste have found it unfashionable—and undoubtedly deeply disturbing, too.

Salvayre’s voice is an angry one much of the time. She vents a righteous indignation worthy of Zola’s J’accuse! when describing, for instance, the living conditions of urban squatters or the conditions of workers in a factory. Her voice is targeted, moreover, and trenchant in its action. Its incursions into the sordid heart of living matter are characterized by a satirical touch that is positively Swiftian in nature (and indeed Salvayre appeals explicitly to Swift on a number of occasions). Her attacks on a variety of pernicious contemporary me-isms would do Philip Wylie proud. Her anger focuses on a broad spectrum of targets, from the political nomenklatura and the moral castrati that guarantee the efficient application of its programs to the garden-variety abusers, molesters, profiteers, and self-satisfied mouth-breathers whose paths we cross every day as we limp across the landscape of our quotidian. It is not an easy voice to listen to, for it quickly becomes apparent that one of the targets of her anger is us, and how we come to terms with social reality complacently, in manners calculated to spare our conscience.

Like her gaze, Salvayre’s voice is one of an outsider, a marginal figure. She has deliberately adopted an eccentric position in order to interrogate more lucidly some of the central premises of our social organization. Born in France to Spanish Republican refugees (her mother was an anarchist, her father a communist), Salvayre comes by her political commitment honestly. And perhaps her marginal position, too: by her own admission, as the child of “foreigners,” her early apprenticeship in French language and culture was a difficult one. She inaugurated her literary career rather late in life, publishing her first novel, La Déclaration (The Declaration, 1990), in her mid-forties. Abandoning her literary studies in favor of psychiatry, Salvayre has for many years practiced that profession in Seine-Saint Denis, near Paris. Without a doubt, her work in psychiatry informs her writing in crucial ways. Many of her books, like La Déclaration, La Vie commune (Ordinary Life, 1991), La Puissance des mouches (The Strength of Flies, 1995), La Compagnie des spectres (The Company of Ghosts, 1997), Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers (Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers, 1997), La Conférence de Cintegabelle (The Cintegabelle Lecture, 1999), and, most recently, Contre (Against, 2002), are incessantly monological in nature—obsessional, unrelenting screeds voiced by a subject strained to the breaking point. The personal and social roots of that strain may vary (and indeed certain of Salvayre’s texts insist more closely on the “personal,” while others focus on the “social”), but each of these narrators is deeply estranged from his or her surroundings and from officially consecrated versions of social reality.

The anonymous narrator of La Puis-sance des mouches is a fine example of that belabored fraternity. He is a museum guard at Port-Royal-des-Champs, the abbey that in the seventeenth century offered a home to a variety of Jansenists, and most notably Blaise Pascal. The narrator has spent his life reading Pascal and knows him by heart; yet, curiously enough, he has apparently not read any other writers (he has never heard of Montaigne, for instance). Like Salvayre, he is the child of Spanish Republican refugees, and he himself was conceived in the notorious French internment camp at Argelès. Pascal brings little consolation to this man in his efforts to come to terms with the people around him. His father is a brutal figure (a theme that runs through Salvayre’s work, where the relations of child and father are always vexed); his boss is capricious and demanding; his wife, fed up with years of neglect, finally leaves him. He has been incarcerated for murder—but it is not clear whom he has murdered, among the several likely candidates. He speaks incessantly throughout the novel—to the judge who instructs his case, to a male nurse in the prison infirmary, to a psychiatrist who must evaluate his fitness to stand trial—but speech brings him paltry solace and less understanding. The question of the murder will be resolved in an explosion of truth at the very end of the novel, but a number of other questions will be left in abeyance.

Suzanne, the narrator of La Vie commune, an executive secretary in late middle-age, resembles him closely. Like him, Suzanne is alienated from those to whom, notionally at least, she should be closest. Widowed for many years, her relations with her only daughter are difficult at best. And she holds nothing but disdain for a neighbor who pays her a courtship that is touching in its sincerity, mawkish though it may be in its tactics. Most especially, Suzanne cannot abide the new secretary who has moved into her office. Everything about her is impossibly vulgar. She smokes cigarettes. When she’s not smoking, she chews gum, aloud. She favors low-cut dresses and third-rate novelists. She mocks their employer (whom Suzanne venerates) savagely behind his back and displays a kittenish charm to his face. Suzanne’s animus for her new colleague brews throughout this novel and will gradually consume her. She is barely able to articulate her feelings, so overpowering are they: “I abhor her. I abhor her. I abhor her.” The obsessional, iterative form of that utterance is nicely figural of Salvayre’s general strategy in La Vie commune, which more than anything else deals with the ways in which paltry tribulations can sometimes shift the very tenuous balance we strive to maintain as we walk the tightrope of “ordinary life.”

La Compagnie des spectres moves more frankly into the domain of the social and the political. Set in a working-class neighborhood in the Parisian suburbs, the novel tells the story of a woman named Rose and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Louisiane, and their encounter with a process-server named Maître Echinard who has come to evict them from their apartment. The voice we hear is Louisiane’s, and she has the unenviable task of mediating between her mother’s vituperative logorrhea and Maître Echinard’s coldly administrative taciturnity. Rose’s grip on reality is fragile. Or rather, she lives in two realities simultaneously, that of the “now” and that of the Occupation, during which her brother was murdered by the collaborationist French militia. Rose is firmly persuaded that Maître Echinard has been sent by Joseph Darnand, the head of the militia, who was tried and executed for his crimes shortly after the Liberation. Clearly, Rose is crazy—but perhaps (as Camus remarked about the Roman emperor Caligula) she is not crazy enough, for in her delirium she points toward gestures of institutional oppression in France that have not changed much in the half-century since the war.

Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers, a short but very pungent text, entertains a kind of dialogical relationship with La Compagnie des spectres, for it is narrated by Maître Echinard himself and affords him the voice that he lacked in that novel. Addressing a class of apprentice process-servers, Maître Echinard offers them the benefit of some of the wisdom he has acquired in the profession to which they aspire. The pearls that he casts before these swine are lustrous ones. “Poor people, as you will have occasion to verify, are often excessively emotional.” None more so, of course, than Rose and Louisiane, whose eviction he uses as a case study for the edification of his students—though his version of events is quite different from the one in La Compagnie des spectres. Alas, his students are somewhat less accomplished than he might have wished; they have never heard of Darnand, nor do they have any idea what the word “paranoia” means. All of which merely serves to redouble Maître Echinard’s pedagogical zeal, of course. He is a curious narrator, and Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers is a curious text. Layering irony upon irony, Salvayre invites us to read through her narrator, as it were, offering him to us like a photographic negative, inviting us to develop our own picture of the events he recounts and the ethical code that he enunciates.

She deploys a similar technique in La Conférence de Cintegabelle. One evening in the town hall of a hamlet in the Pyrenees, the local blowhard delivers a lengthy—indeed, seemingly interminable—lecture to his fellow citizens. His subject is the lost art of “conversation,” once an art preeminently French, but now fallen into sad disuse, along with the culture that nourished it. His rhetoric is full-blown neoclassical, pompous and heavily aphoristic. The lecturer peppers his remarks with studiously chosen—and howlingly inapposite—allusions to thinkers who have preceded him, figures such as Plato, Baltasar Gracián, Gandhi, Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Kant, Epictetus, Seneca, Saint-Simon, and Swift. Yet despite the seductions of his oratorical style, he frets about losing his audience. “Do you find my language too abstract,” he asks his listeners at one point, carefully not leaving them time to answer. For there’s the first irony: this paean to conversation is exclusively monological, and the lecturer is quick to hush any voice that is not his own. Little wonder, then, that his conversations with his wife were uninteresting while she was alive, but now that she is dead, he converses with her regularly, and with great satisfaction. Lydie Salvayre plays among the ironies she erects here with considerable gusto. She intends thereby, I believe, to initiate a conversation with her readers—but not perhaps of quite the sort that her lecturer has in mind.

In The Award (1993), the only one of Salvayre’s major texts to have found its way into English translation thus far, a variety of voices resound. Focusing upon an end-of-year awards ceremony in a factory, the text shifts rhetorical gears vertiginously, as the speeches of the executives and administrators alternate with those of the workers who receive the awards. But that alternation is significantly unbalanced, for the bosses always speak longer than the workers; they perorate happily, while the workers sweat and stutter; their style is conventionally eloquent, while that of the workers is halting and at times aphasic. The bosses say the most monstrous things, yet they couch them in the most seductive language. The Director of Human Resources points out complaisantly that factory life is not without its small pleasures. Indeed, the rules of conduct, though admittedly strict in the past, are slowly being liberalized. Whereas onanism during working hours has long been frowned upon, for instance, it will henceforth be tolerated, nay, positively encouraged. This year’s laureates, it becomes clear, have distinguished themselves in one of several areas. Either they are among the elite of the utterly passive downtrodden, or they are exemplary Stakhanovist superheroes, or they are spies and informers. In any case, they won’t get a chance to say much. On the other hand, with a strike brewing in the factory, the administration is abundantly aware that every one of its words must count.

Les Belles Ames (Generous Souls, 2000) deals with that most ephemeral fetish of our contemporary culture, “reality.” A travel company called Real Voyages has organized a special sort of “reality tour,” which will enable a group of liberal, bourgeois tourists to visit the worst slums of Europe. The company has conceived its itinerary according to two principles. First, it is intended to present to the tourists “a varied as well as exhaustive sampling of the different specimens of poor folk”; second, it will proceed in progressive fashion: “first, the more presentable poor, then the less presentable, then the last of the last, and finally those human wrecks the mere sight of whom is sufficient to disgust you with living.” Beginning with a visit to a Parisian housing project, the tourists come away with their benevolent bonhomie largely intact. In fact, several of them feel cheated and clamor for more squalid vistas. As they travel from Brussels to Cologne, Berlin, Dresden, Milan, and Turin, their wish will be granted. Sooner than one might expect, moreover, they will have their surfeit of “reality”—and then some. Each day, they flee the “real” with more relief, into the welcome unreal of their luxury hotels and their three-star restaurants. The “real” raises its ugly head even within the tour group upon occasion, for the fact that the tour guide, the bus driver, the “Ambiance Agent” Jason, and his girlfriend Olympe don’t belong to the tourists’ world raises questions of class that are as uncomfortable as they are misplaced. Despite the nobility of its conception, this odyssey will end in irresolution and equivocation—as indeed it must.

In Contre, Lydie Salvayre finally speaks in her very own voice, unmediated by that of a fictional narrator. Moreover, this is quite literally true: Contre was commissioned as a performance piece for voice and two guitars by the organizers of the Avignon theater festival, and the published version comes with a compact disc, a recording of Lydie Salvayre reciting her text. Strangely enough—or perhaps not quite so strangely, after all—her voice resembles that of certain of her characters. Haranguing by turns, always ironizing, scathingly cajoling at times, belaboring, satirizing, castigating, Salvayre voices a broadside indictment of contemporary France. She points to a society saturated with commercialism and consumerism, where the only music that really matters is the music of stock market quotations and where the media’s fascination with blood and sensationalism has promoted war as the only “diversion” worthy of interest; where incarceration is generalized and education is conceived primarily as a system of control through which model citizens can be constructed. She sketches a bulimic populace stuffed with alcohol, cheese, and buttered croissants, opiated with romance novels, and functionally zombified by psychotropic drugs of every stripe. Household pets are treated better than the women who are paid to clean those households; women themselves are enslaved in a cult of the body that worships at the perfect knees of the Barbie doll; lovers send each other torrid e-mails instead of expressing a sexuality that might be “unsafe”; people speak constantly, but soundlessly. Just like in her previous texts, Salvayre chooses in Contre to speak to us boldly. Yet amid her admonishments to her listeners, she is surely speaking to herself as well: “Come out of your comas, I tell them, and come back to your senses, you are not sheep. I was speaking to myself, actually, and it was myself I was exhorting.” Beyond that ironizing reflexivity, however, Salvayre, like the great Greek Cynic Diogenes, the Dog, the truth-teller whose example she follows in Contre, is looking for an honest person, one who will speak in his or her turn, holding up his or her end of a conversation that is as timely as it is infinite. But who might that person be?


The Award. Trans. Jane Davey. Four Walls Eight Windows, $18.00.
The Company of Ghosts. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
The Power of Flies. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.
Everyday Life. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.50.
The Lecture. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.50.


Les Belles Âmes [Generous Souls]. Seuil, €13.57.
Contre [Against]. Verticales, €8.50.
La Déclaration [The Declaration]. Verticales, €12.20.
Et que les vers mangent le boeuf mort [And that the Worms Eat the Dead Ox]. Verticales, €14.00.
Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers [Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers]. Verticales, €5.34.
Le Vif du vivant: Picasso carnet de 1964 [The Quick of Life]. Cercle d’Art, €22.87.

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