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.

In the opening pages of Artificial Snow, the narrator misses the last métro, just as he is left behind by life. (The novel is full of trains and buses that abandon the narrator – if they turn up at all.) He has just left a dinner party hosted by an on-off girlfriend, Marie, who’s pretending it isn’t her birthday. Hiding in the loo in the hope he’ll get a good place at table, the narrator ends up ‘wedged’ between a fat girl and a cold radiator: ‘That was when she told us we were having sushi.’ When the lights go out suddenly and a cake is carried in, he realises he’s the only one who’s forgotten the birthday. He sneaks out to catch the last métro: he has planned to meet other friends at the Star Club. Zeller refuses to make things better for his already depressed protagonist: missing the métro is a ‘roundabout way of showing the world that I was one of life’s inveterate losers’. He shakes his fist at the train as it disappears into the tunnel: ‘Après moi, le déluge!’ he says. The right words if you’re last in before the doors snap together, but he has missed the train and so corrects himself: ‘Après elle, le déluge.’ ‘She’ is Lou, the girlfriend he loved too much, and who has left him. Does that make him the déluge? Yes and no. Déluge is too grand – all he’s done is miss the last train – but he is right that he’s a mess, an inveterate loser. The novel is the story of his destructive wallowing: voilà le déluge.

He has to make it to the Star Club, because there’s a chance that Lou will be there. In a taxi, he ‘stylishly tidied’ his hair ‘with the aid of the window’; the driver’s smile reflected in the rear-view mirror shows ‘that he thought I was a complete arse.’ He thinks of starting a conversation but it’s as hard as starting a novel: ‘I’ve been going to bed early for ages, but tonight I’m going to see some friends at the Star.’ Evidently even Proust won’t do. Once inside, his friend Florian is pretty easy to spot. At the age of ten, Florian had placed a wire between his teeth and pushed it into an electric socket, but luckily ‘the only after-effects were a fierce desire to write books and a weird hairstyle: his hair seemed to be permanently crystallised on his head like untidy stalagmites.’ Zeller’s own hair fits this description very well, as can be seen on the full-page portrait included as a frontispiece to Artificial Snow; there is a more recent picture on the promotional banner wrapped around Elle t’attend, where the stalagmites have relaxed into a tousled flop. (Zeller’s hair has been much derided in the French press. The Nouvel Observateur imagined a biography to be published in 2021: Cheveux au vent: Florian Zeller, la biographie.) The silly hair and post-traumatic writing disorder are a teasing self-portrait; Zeller goes one further, and gives the narrator his surname. (Is he just a terrific egotist?) The narrator thinks ‘about the meaning of my surname, Zeller, probably inherited from my father, which in German meant both monk and prisoner. For years, I’d thought it contained a real paradox, then I realised it referred to just one thing, a cell, a room that was closed off and isolated from life.’ Zeller isn’t in fact a German word, but it sounds like Keller (‘cellar’): Zeller is his own cell; he is an island, entire of himself. At first it’s fun, fooling about with feral hair, but when the preening flâneur self-pityingly claims he’s imprisoned by his own name, the games become tedious.

One of Zeller’s problems as a novelist is cliché: cliché in the French sense of a snapshot. In Artificial Snow, the impression you get is that Zeller has photographed a Kundera novel: the framing is his, but the elements – the sex, the digressions, the ennui – have come from elsewhere. He has been criticised for this in France, especially in relation to his third novel, The Fascination of Evil.[*] In that book, two writers go to an Egyptian literary festival: one is a Houellebecq figure who skips his discussion panels and spends his evenings dragging the other, less iconoclastic writer (the narrator) around Cairo, looking for the sort of luscious Eastern prostitute with whom Flaubert spent his evenings during his 1849 trip. The Houellebecq figure uses their adventures as the basis for his next novel. The Fascination of Evil is thought to have been based on Houellebecq’s Platform and the trial Houellebecq subsequently stood for provoking racial hatred in the novel. (Zeller has improbably described his friend as ‘sensitive and gentle’.)

Zeller’s fourth novel, Julien Parme, is the story of a 14-year-old who runs away from home for a few days: he drinks whisky with bums in bars, lies profusely, decides he will be a great writer and have a street named after him, lies some more, takes a duckling away from its mother, kisses the girl he’s been in love with from afar and then goes home again.[†] It was unsurprisingly compared to Catcher in the Rye. Zeller has talked about his novels as ‘caricature’; perhaps he doesn’t know how accurate this is. He takes aim at his own hair, France’s attitude to Muslim countries and how we think about difficult children, but in being excessively faithful to his heroes – rewriting their stories and adopting their style – Zeller makes novel-writing seem pointless. He’s supposed to have landed like a meteorite, but he has yet to do anything astonishingly original.

In an interview with the New Statesman in 2007, he spoke of a pre-Sarkozy type of gloom in France: ‘It is an aggressive depression, rather than a morose or introspective depression, and people lash out at others.’ This is the sort of depression the narrator of Artificial Snow suffers from. A perfect representative of his generation, he responds to the Star Club’s fancy dress theme – ‘The Future of Man’ – by bringing a box of downers, Bromazepam, ‘with the idea of attaching it to a string, putting it round my neck and possibly hanging myself with it’. (Everyone else is in feathers and sequins; he looks like a civil servant.) Lou isn’t at the club. He remembers the last time he saw her, at the dinner party where he ended up in a bedroom with a threesome: ‘That evening she was wearing a sailor T-shirt; blue and white stripes ran round her body, her breasts, her shoulders, like the coloured rails of a train I would have liked to catch again and again, and definitely never miss.’ It’s an unromantic simile, but maybe it’s the sort of thing a character who is forever missing trains would come up with. Lou is both sailor and speeding train, the moving thing he’s destined to miss. He thinks they broke up because their love wasn’t tempered by lust: ‘I’d never fucked Lou; we made do with the tenderness of love and then, one November day, she left.’ Usually affairs fail because there isn’t enough love, but Zeller likes turning things the wrong way round.

The narrator, in undergraduate philosophising mode, says that ‘the antinomic aspects of existence are things that can only be taken together’: his example is Félix Faure, the president who is said to have died while his mistress was giving him a blow job. So it follows (in a sense) that the narrator now wants to kill Lou to show his love. The day she left, he’d seen her in the Jardins du Luxembourg with another man: ‘I watched them for a while, in tears, out of sheer masochism and the hands of my watch turned. As did my life, permanently, just as wine turns to vinegar.’ Time stops, metaphor steps in. The salty tears turn into wine and then into vinegar, the Wedding at Cana gone awry. He starts carrying a knife: ‘Through my shirt, I could feel the elongated shape of the Stanley knife I now carried on me. I knew I had the metal that would kill Lou resting against my heart.’ This should be a dangerous moment, a turning point in the story, but in context it’s just another death-and-sex metaphor. Image and action seep into each other, making both seem unreal.

Not that it’s a problem. Artificial Snow doesn’t proceed by cause and effect, but by its strings of metaphors. One of the novel’s epigraphs is a line Zeller wants us to think comes from Shakespeare: ‘Where goes the white when melts the snow?’ It’s there to begin a run of icy comparisons: Arctic explorers, Christmas mornings and a white carpet like a blanket of snow, suggesting adventure, childish excitement, nostalgia, an inviting cleanness, a fresh start. A less straightforward connotation of expanses of white is hinted at towards the end of the novel, when the narrator brings to mind ‘the experiment of the white painting, the point where there’s nothing left to destroy, except oneself. That’s what we’d come to. We were spiritually bare. White, not with spotless purity, as at the beginning, but with terrifying, cynical emptiness.’ (Zeller’s ideas are Café de Flore-ian, world-weary and easily arrived at.) Snow isn’t clean any more, but bare. It was only promising once, when the narrator was a boy, crying because he’d been caught playing truant. His opera-singer mother hums a tune, holds him in her arms: ‘My body was shaking against hers, I wanted her to warm me. The garden and the neighbouring roofs were under a blanket of snow. Everything was blanketed with white. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, I was experiencing this moment as a moment of sweetness.’ But soon the snow melts ‘and the town was covered in thick mud.’ Artificial snow would be better, as it stays white and doesn’t melt into the dirt. The string of snowy metaphors stands for freshness and then for its opposite; what it is that snow means in the novel keeps changing. The effect is of movement within stillness.

At the age of 29, Zeller seems to have given up writing novels and has begun to write plays, which is odd in a writer who doesn’t much like dialogue. His first two, L’Autre and Le Manège, were produced in small theatres, but his third, Si tu mourais, played on the Champs-Elysées and his fourth, Elle t’attend, starred the shiny-haired Laetitia Casta of L’Oréal shampoo ads and is the first play of his to be published by Flammarion, who also publish his novels. ‘Elle’ is a Circe figure who has brought her Odysseus to Corsica, having taken him from his Penelope and their two daughters three months before. The next morning Odysseus goes for a walk in the mountains and doesn’t come back, and now Circe has to wait. It’s Homer’s premise, via Camus’s ‘tragique solaire’ (the despair found in hot places).

It’s hard not to think that Zeller’s greatest creation is himself. With the purposely messy hair and the half-open shirt, the early encouragement from Françoise Sagan, the celebrity writer friends, the actress wife who’s a close friend of Carla Bruni (they were at the Bruni-Sarkozy wedding), you would never guess that Zeller grew up in a single-parent family in Brittany. To make himself into a writer, he has borrowed from Kundera, Houellebecq, Salinger, Pinter. These borrowings have made Zeller’s life more glamorously writerly than the lives of the writers he admires. If you ignore the sunken, mournful eyes, you will never see a photograph of a writer more pleased to be himself, to keep the company he keeps (though this is perhaps too kind to Bernard-Henri Lévy). Zeller’s metaphors have been in the service of his greatest work: Florian Zeller, writer.

[*] 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.