Friday, 4 September 2009

Voice Over


They have known each other for a long time. She has never quite been able to recall the moment when they met, the place, the precise day, whether she shook his hand or they kissed on the cheek. Nor has she ever thought to ask him. She does have a first memory, though. As she was was climbing into her coat in the narrow hallway of an unkempt apartment, she had caught his look of distress. The woman he had flirted with all evening was refusing to leave with him. He was trying to persuade her with an insistent barrage of words, which fell to pieces in the face of the majestic creature. She thought the idea of being suddenly deprived of the object of his affections must have been more than he could bear just then. And seeing him this way, in love, had moved her. She had slipped between the two of them and said, I'm off. But he had not replied.

I have quoted the opening passage of Voice Over by CĂ©line Curiol in its entirety to give you a sense of its style. At first I was immersed in the narrative, admiring her approach, but I soon became lost and never found my way in the text, to where it was going. The style is at first novel but it quickly becomes off-putting. The anonymous narrator -a disembodied voice who announces trains at the Gare du Nord- remains faceless and nameless and I never had a sense of who she was. The "he" from the opening paragraph, the man she loves, also remains nameless and I was often confused about who I was reading about, especially as the time narrative moves backwards and forwards, like a train making stops at certain stations along the way. The style is never-changing and the continual stream-of-consciousness throughout the text, with no chapter breaks or even dialogue, made it inaccessible to me. The style though is definitely a talking point.

As mentioned yesterday, this was a book group choice and it certainly generated discussion. For the most part though it was to voice our own incomprehension and wonder at what Curiol was attempting to achieve, at which we drew no definitive conclusions. We deviated into a rich and informative discussion on accomplished, unique, and, at times, alienating narratives (think Coetzee, Self, Amis), which greatly interested and intrigued me. I am attracted to books that play with the boundaries of narrative and I do enjoy feeling confused by an author's intent on occasion but I don't think I was in the right head space for Voice Over. For a start, my head has hurt since last Thursday and prose that I really had to work at made it worse. I thought that a book at just over 200 pages would be a breeze to read in a couple of days but it wasn't; I struggled with its density. I was left with no insight into the narrator -the stream of consciousness doesn't actually allow you into her mind or a sense of who she is- or the authorial message, if there was one; I even questioned whether all of the strange events in the novel existed or were imagined in her head. I found this book a very difficult one to read and I don't think it was limitations of translation in any way but a style that simply didn't suit my reading needs. With a fuzzy head and post-Persephone week exhaustion, followed by immersion into Catching Fire, I have fallen into a bit of a book slump, that isn't helped by a time-sensitive to-be-read pile (Bookers mainly).

I was left feeling underwhelmed and confused by Voice Over but it generated a good discussion. All in all it is a curious book but makes an interesting choice for a book group. Some of us disliked it and others enjoyed its originality but we all agreed that it is bizarre.

Polly of Novel Insights has also posted her thoughts and I enjoy that we took different things away from it and both provide different views of the same picture. I forgot to mention the Esther Greenwood (from The Bell Jar) comparisons to the narrator, which were wonderfully coincidental. eta: Simon has also posted his views from Tel Aviv!




14 comments:

Novel Insights said...

Such a good idea to put that passage in there as the writing style of the book is so integral to how you read it. Great review - "For the most part though it was to voice our own incomprehension and wonder at what Curiol was attempting to achieve, at which we drew no definitive conclusions." LOL!

anothercookiecrumbles said...

This sounds confusing. I'm not the biggest fan of the whole third person pronoun thing-a-do.

I might give this one a skip! Good review though, and the first paragraph does look interesting...

Paperback Reader said...

Polly, I agree about the writing and think it was fair to give people a sense of whether they would enjoy that style or not.

I also thought that line summed up last night's meeting! Not necessarily a bad thing but our brows were furrowed a lot.

anothercookie, I found it very confusing. It was weird as I compared it to The Mirror Crisis narrative of How to Paint a Dead Man, which is told in the second-person, which was also confusing at first but I loved it! Sometimes the effect works and sometimes it doesn't.

The first paragraph does entice but I found it too hard-going when that style was maintained throughout.

Rachel said...

Yes I can't stand books like this that are so dense and confusing they hurt your head to read them. Reading is supposed to be pleasurable and not a chore!

I hope your head feels better soon. :( You certainly outdid yourself with all your reading during Persephone Week so perhaps you should take a break - may I suggest a bit of Frances Hodgson Burnett?!

Paperback Reader said...

My sentiments exactly, Rachel. I love my brain to be taxed but I hate it to hurt!

Funny you should mention FHB, as I've been wanting to reread The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy... children's lit is often the only thing to lift me out of book slumps. I don't have any of her adult novels except for the Persephones but I loved those.

farmlanebooks said...

This book made a great discussion, but I didn't enjoy reading it. It was too bizarre/rambling for me. Hopefully I'll get my review up soon.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, it wasn't an enjoyable experience for me either, for the same reasons.

Steph said...

At my most recent book club meeting, we had a similar experience (although we were discussing a short story collection), in that everyone mostly felt confused by the stories, so in that way the discussion was good because before going to the meeting, I was kind of wondering if I was just really dense. Knowing that I wasn't made me feel like I wasn't a terrible reader!
I didn't exactly find the paragraph you presented jarring, BUT it was only one paragraph, and I could see how a whole book like that would be tiresome. It seems like it would be very hard to connect with any of the characters, that there would always be some distance. I wonder if it has something to do with modern French literature? I tried reading "The Theory of Clouds" earlier this year and it was an epic fail... I just could not get into the writing at all!

Teresa said...

I must confess that I'm intrigued by this one, but that sort of writing style doesn't bother me if I'm in the right mood for it and if it's done well, which it sounds like it is here.

Paperback Reader said...

Steph, it is good discussing books in a group to find out that you're not alone.

I liked the first paragraph and the first few pages for its style but the continuous prose is exhausting.

I haven't read much modern French literature but I did read The Elegance of the Hedgehog a few months ago and really enjoyed it; the content though is quite dense (the philisophical parts) as opposed to the writing.

Teresa, it's a very accomplished debut novel but I simply wasn't in the mood for it; you may fare better.

kimbofo said...

Nice to read your review after last week's meeting.

The discussion made me think about this book even more, and I've come to the conclusion it's actually a damn fine novel, because of its challenging prose style but also in the way it depicts the world of an outsider. I appreciate, though, that you do require the right "head space" to read it, as it's not something to be picked up on a whim, I think you really need to be in the mood to read the literary equivalent of an art house film!

Paperback Reader said...

Kim, I agree that it was the literary equivalent to an art house film although I LOVE art house films!
I wish that I had been in the right head space for this to give it a fair analysis. I did love the themes and imagery.

Danielle said...

I just read Kim's review of this--it does sound intriguing, but definitely you would need to be in the right mood for it! Sometimes the shortest books can be the most difficult--very misleading. What will you be reading next? I miss being in a local book group, but I am in one or two online ones. Not quite the same, but still fun.

Paperback Reader said...

Danielle, we're reading I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (my choice) next.

I do love my face-to-face book groups; it really makes the difference. Does your library not run one? Maybe you should start it, if you had extra time!