In December 2016, I wrote a little post on a book of feminist tales called The High Priestess Never Marries: Stories of Love and Consequence, the fiction debut of Sharanya Manivannan, a talented Chennai-based poet and columnist. I mentioned that I found it an innovative creative writing project – with “many of its two dozen or so narrative pieces being longer than your average poem but shorter than your usual short story.”
French writer Emmanuelle Pagano (Wikipedia) goes even further with such experimentation in Trysting, a collection of nearly three hundred vignettes on love ranging from one page to a mere sentence in size. First published in 2013 as Nouons-nous, the book has been translated into English by Oxford-based Jennifer Higgins (@JennyTranslates) and London-based Sophie Lewis (@sophietimes). It was released last year in the UK by And Other Stories (mentioned previously) and in the US by Two Lines Press (also mentioned previously).
Born in Aveyron in southern France in 1969, Pagano studied fine art and film aesthetics at university. She has written more than a dozen works of fiction. Her novel Les Adolescents Troglodytes (2007) won the 2009 EU Prize for Literature. She lives in Ardèche in south-central France with her three children and regularly collaborates with artists working in other disciplines such as dance, cinema, photography and music.
There’s a lot in Trysting that will irritate a traditional/mainstream publisher. Generally, readers demand specificity in literature. I have heard many acclaimed authors assert that universal resonance can be achieved only through particularity – other ways of writing do not work. I disagree. We live in a highly globalised era and people share (or are beginning to share) lifestyle similarities across continents. Now some writers can take the risk of stripping down narratives to basic human behaviour and allow the reader to imaginatively complete them with cultural furnishings of their choice.
The vignettes in Pagano’s book are beautifully nebulous. There are only four or five direct references to French life. The stories are boldly reduced to simple but meaningful exchanges between “he” and “she”, and details of location, ethnicity and age (mostly) are left out. Of course, the stories unfold in modern/contemporary times – we know this through the items involved: balloons, earplugs, vacuum cleaners – but they are flexible enough to be set in any society anywhere (or at least in most societies worldwide). The characters who are part of Trysting speak of first passions, bereavement, break-ups, lifelong loyalty, pleasure, infidelities, disappointments, joy, illnesses, youth, maturity, sorrow, wonder, and much more – making up an invaluable repository of human experience. This short and powerful book investigates and celebrates love in all its physicality and psychological complexity.
Four particularly tender tales (titles are mine):
This Man in the Mirror…
The only time I dare look at him face-to-face is in the mirror, when we’re both getting washed in the morning. We get up at the same time and both enjoy this closeness while we go through our little morning routine. We’re far apart all day, out at work, and in the evening we don’t manage to talk or look at each other, or even listen to each other. I sometimes watch him surreptitiously while we’re eating. In bed, when we’re asleep or making love, we close our eyes. I’d like to see him but he prefers darkness and touch. In the morning I can finally look him in the eyes but only via his reflection. I see his face and mine; I can’t avoid seeing my own face, watching him, if I want to see his. But I’m used to such indirectness and I no longer notice my own gaze. I only see him, now. And this man in the mirror smiles at me.
Her Blood-Spotted Attempts…
She’s as clumsy as can be. Still she prides herself on being in charge of things at home, and she doesn’t want me to get involved. She can’t mend anything without pricking herself, and her darns are such a mess that they look like scars. On the hems of my trousers, I wear the reminders of her injured fingers, her blood-spotted attempts to be a housewife.
All in Twenty-Minute Slots…
He was the love of my commute. We loved each other for all those years in the tram going to and from work. Twenty minutes there, twenty minutes back, every working day of the year. We couldn’t do very much, a few kisses, a few caresses, but we talked a lot and we knew each other’s lives inside out, all our dreams and disappointments. We were both in relationships, and we exchanged news of our children, looked forward to being reunited after family holidays and supported each other through hard times, all in twenty-minute slots.
Elements have been Shifting Inside Me…
Since I met her, elements have been shifting inside me. From time to time I hear the clicking of moving parts; inside my body, I feel the smooth turning of cogs, all the slow and delicate working of wheels I hadn’t even suspected were there. I don’t know which sections of me are involved, nor how they are acting upon each other. I listen to these renovations inside my suddenly to obedient frame. Something is changing, but what is it? She’s amending my body, renewing it from top to bottom, painlessly. She’s reshaping me from the inside. All she’s keeping is the bone structure and the skin, everything within is being reorganised. I don’t understand what’s happening.
If you understand French, here’s Emmanuelle Pagano on Nouons-nous: