Heil Putain!

Lorna Scott Fox

The grumble from the camp of the so-called Anglo-Saxon model is that people have too easy a time over there in France. Social safety nets, protection of small businesses, quality food, pampered workers, productive yet lovely countryside, cheap dentists: you name it, it’s got to stop. But those to whom these errors look rather attractive will be confused by Lydie Salvayre’s radical idealism, because she thinks that no such social-democratic redoubt exists. For her, France is a neo-fascist midden, run by criminals and patrolled by enforcers wrapped in a cloak of prim respectability handed down from Vichy.

This view – and as far as I can gather from published interviews with Salvayre it’s more than just a literary posture – is mischievously reframed in The Company of Ghosts as a madwoman’s rant. Salvayre’s work applies a cheerful irony to very dark preoccupations: chiefly the connection between political repression and family horrors, and the male sickness of authoritarianism. This is an attempt, in part, to make sense of her own experience: she is the daughter of working-class Spanish refugees, whose ordeals seem to have ravaged her relationship with her father, and affected her mother’s mental health and her own early development. She trained as a psychiatrist, and is now practising with young people in Seine-St-Denis, outside Paris. Her first novel, The Declaration, came out in 1990, when she was in her forties; The Company of Ghosts, her fifth, was first published in 1997.

Salvayre’s works take the form of tragicomic monologues. Not streams of consciousness: the characters are presented as talking aloud, and if they don’t sound exactly naturalistic it’s because they happen to have a classical literary background that inflects their turn of phrase. In The Power of Flies her speaker is a museum guide on trial for murder who pours himself out to a judge, a nurse and a psychiatrist; for professional reasons he has read all of Pascal and nothing else. In The Lecture a provincial academic is talking at the town hall on the lost French art of conversation, undercutting his own pompous references and plain incapacity for dialogue with helpless digressions on the recent death of his wife. In La Méthode Mila, the most recent novel, the speaker is a Cartesian scholar who discovers the limits of that method and the virtues of the irrational and the unknowable when he is forced to care for his demented mother.

Demented mothers dominate The Company of Ghosts. It’s often not clear which delirious member of the maternal line is holding the floor in overlapping reams of speech within reported speech. The novel’s occasion is a bailiff’s visit to the squalid flat inhabited by 19-year-old Louisiane and her mother Rose: he has come to inventory their belongings before seizure and eviction. The girl’s efforts to charm him away from his purpose while keeping her mother under control fail abysmally, but her continually scuppered, continually renewed attempts to deny the reality of her situation, and salvage a shred of dignity, provide much of the uncomfortable fun. The old woman in her smelly nightdress opens the proceedings by accusing the bailiff (or ‘process-server’, as the translation lumberingly has it) of being a member of Joseph Darnand’s collaborationist militia. Louisiane, ‘putting on the afflicted face that circumstances clearly required’, tries to apologise in a tone that she thinks is urbane:

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