La Liseuse by Paul Fournel: Making madeleines into petit beurre LU

This is my review of La Liseuse by Paul Fournel.

What happens when Robert Dubois, the middle-aged, stuck in his ways editor of a Paris publishing firm, is given an e-reader by a young intern at the behest of the whizz kid accountant who has taken over the business? This is mainly a device to enable Fournel’s lively imagination to range over the effects of technology on literature. At the press of a button, a page disappears. Does it exist any more? It is no longer possible to mark comments in the margin with a pencil. If he wants his wife to read a particular book, he will have to lend her his “liseuse”, leaving himself nothing to read, together with the sneaking fear she may read something else altogether from what he has intended. Then there is the scope to alter the text: turning Proust’s madeleines into petit beurre LU biscuits.

This satirical novella introduces us to a number of neurotic authors and provides a sounding board for the author’s opinions, often expressed in flowing and poetic prose: the publisher’s resentment over being prevented from reading great works by the continual need to identify new books for a future one may not live to see, where one may be blamed for one’s choices; the fact that, when an author has a success, people want him to recreate the same book over and over again; the lack of demand for French literature in England, perhaps because it is not offered to readers there; the joy of finding bookshops which do not offer discounts and three for two deals, “ne jouent pas le jeu du commerce, juste celui de livres.”

Plot and character development are of little interest to Fournel. The sudden leaps between scenes are often confusing and the price to be paid for all this is that the reader does not engage strongly with the characters.

The frequent cultural references make this book challenging for a non-French reader. The device of writing in the form of a sestina – which means that the 36 chapters each end with one of six chosen words, “lue”, “crème”, “editeur”, “faute”, “moi”, “soir” in a complex cycle seemed pointless and a bit pretentious. This is all part of Fournel’s involvement with “L’Oulipo”, a movement of writers who subject themselves to various “mathematical” constraints.

Apart from the flashes of humour and quirky thinking – getting the local butcher to weigh the e-reader and find that the world’s great literature amounts to 730 gm – what won me over was the quality of Fournel’s writing over say, the experience of eating an artichoke, travelling in the London underground or, as a “townie” enduring the countryside: “la campagne ressemble terriblement à la campagne…une épaisse tartine d’ennui vert posée à même le sol”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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