Closely Missed Trains

Joanna Biggs

  • Artificial Snow by Florian Zeller, translated by Sue Rose
    Pushkin, 119 pp, £10.00, January 2009, ISBN 978 1 901285 84 0
  • Elle t’attend by Florian Zeller
    Flammarion, 154 pp, €12.00, September 2008, ISBN 978 2 08 120749 3

A few summers ago, I sat in on lectures at the Sorbonne, where it seemed to be the fashion for the lecturers to talk in metaphors. Beckett’s prose was a snowball rolling down a mountain: you start with nothing, and as it picks up more snow, you end up with something. His novels were a washing machine: language is slung into the drum and turns until it comes out clean. This kind of talk is also a habit in Artificial Snow, the first of Florian Zeller’s four novels but the last to be published in English, written while he was a student at Sciences Po and still subject to those washing machines and snowballs. What the protagonist actually takes the trouble to do isn’t of much importance: what matters is what he thinks while doing it. Early on in the novel, he decides to escape a tedious dinner party and disturbs a threesome as he retrieves his coat from the bedroom:

I had absolutely no idea what to do and the images unfolding before my eyes weren’t conducive to making a snap decision. If I retraced my steps, I had to leave without my jacket, if I kept walking, I gave myself away. I was trapped in what seemed to be an impossible no-win situation. Expressed as a metaphor, I’d say I was in the same position as the explorer who finds himself trapped in his igloo with wolves outside waiting to eat him if he comes out, while, inside, the cold is so cold that his breath is turning to ice on the igloo walls, gradually shrinking his survival space (broadly speaking, whatever he does, he’s screwed). Eschewing crappy metaphors, I’d say prosaically I was in deep shit.

What do you get when you put a ponderous young man in a room with two naked women and a naked man? An appropriately snowy image. He imagines himself as an intrepid Arctic explorer, but this parallel self is still too active, and soon the narrator is a statue, stuck in shit. That there are two ways of describing the moment suggests that Zeller has something deeper in mind. Will metaphors do instead of action? Are they just pretentious? Can any description close the gap between words and what they describe? Artificial Snow deploys strings of metaphors; they knit the novel together.

Zeller was 22 when Artificial Snow came out to terrific critical acclaim in France. One French reviewer called his talent ‘frightening’. Another spoke of ‘a precocious literary success’. Yet another said that Zeller ‘had landed on the literary world like a meteorite’. Another still declared him ‘disarming. More than promising, he is bursting with talent.’ He is not yet 30 but has written a bestseller, been translated into a dozen languages, taught at Sciences Po, left Sciences Po to direct his plays (he’s written four) and won the Prix Interallié (whose other winners include Malraux, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq). He says his biggest regret is not being English, and indeed, despite his quickly achieved yet continuing fame in France, he is almost unknown here.

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[*] Pushkin Press, 153 pp., £7.99, July 2008, 978 1 906548 04 9.

[†] Pushkin Press, 246 pp., £12, June 2008, 978 1 901285 97 0.