Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Publications from France

Magazine article The Spectator

Recent Publications from France

Article excerpt

It would seem that non-fiction - or life is taking over from fiction in France this year. The outstanding book, which held its own against more recent publications, was Emmanuel Carrere's L'Adversaire, about a spectacular series of murders which took place in 1993, recounted with a novelist's narrative skill by a former winner of the Prix Medicis who was intrigued, troubled, and finally haunted by a bizarre affair of which he chose to study the aftermath.

On the 9 January 1993 Jean-Claude Romand killed his wife, his children, and his parents, and tried to immolate himself in his house, to which he had set fire. He was rescued, tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

To the outside world he represented worldly success. He was an eminent doctor at the World Health Organisation; he was happily married, and apparently financially secure. The truth of the matter was that he was not a doctor at all. On the strength of a year as a medical student he had familiarised himself with the style and was able to frequent the WHO building as a habitue. The rest of his time he spent in municipal parks or motorway service stations, returning home every evening to a hero's welcome. He was funded by his parents and by friends and colleagues for whom he offered to invest their savings, explaining that interest on their accounts would take some time to accumulate. He kept up this masquerade for an incredible 18 years, until the strain became too great and all his myth-making resources began to fail him. That was when he murdered his family and apparently wished to kill himself, a wish that was not granted, or which he, at the last moment, abjured.

His guilt was not in any doubt. The author, Carrere, intrigued by the reports, attended the trial, corresponded with Romand in prison, and finally wrote a seamless account of what was by any standards a highly unusual case. But that was not the end of the story, not by a long chalk. On hearing the verdict of life imprisonment, a well-meaning woman took up Romand's cause, informed him that she was praying for him, and in no time at all formed a prayer group intent on his salvation. From prison Romand wrote to his supporters, manifesting that mixture of euphoria and self-abasement so precious to those seeking signs of remorse. Remorse there undoubtedly was, but of a self-serving kind: so much goodwill was expressed on both sides that gratification was immense. Through the agency of the group Romand was transformed into what he had never been in his previous life: a deserving case. Of his more sinister pathology no trace remained. Only Carrere's brilliant account stood, or stands, as an indictment. Published in France by P.O.L., L'Adversaire will appear in translation in the coming year. It should not be missed. Although it came out last January it continues to resonate, putting mere fictions into a category that seem infinitesimally reduced.

I also liked Une Jeunesse a l'Ombre de la Lumiere (Gallimard) by Jean-Marie Rouart, defiantly described as a novel on the cover but in fact an autobiography interspersed with travel notes. The narrator, like Young Werther, describes his sentimental disappointments, his professional false starts, and above all his melancholy. Verifiably descended from a family of painters and friends of painters, the narrator, or Rouart, writes, in a particularly mellifluous French, of his early years, which to him were overshadowed by failure, but failure seen through the years of later success, when various resignations and sackings have resolved themselves into the life of an esteemed writer and member of the Academie Franqaise. Intriguingly he concentrates on the humiliations of his youth, when confusion could only be resolved by flight. His instinct was sound, and served him well. This mildly addictive narrative might have been written at the beginning of the 19th century and proves, against the odds, that confession, which may or may not be good for the soul, is eminently attractive on the page. …

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