Les Pantoufles by Luc-Michel Fouassier:”Je préférais ne pas” – a fable on nonconformity

We can probably all relate to the predicament of the narrator, who in an absent-minded moment as he leaves home for a work meeting finds himself locked out, wearing a suit with a pair of tartan slippers. Very quickly, he notices how passers by react to him differently, with surprise, concern and often derision.

The “charentaises”, as these particular soft, felt-soled slippers are called in France, also alter his own behaviour, making him feel more at ease, able to slip past the office receptionists unnoticed, since his feet make no sound. His slippers often work to his advantage – in a game of tennis, the opponent who normally beats him hollow is so distracted that he loses and departs, a bad loser, “un petit côté Agassi-agaçant”. When a group of artists at a party want him to explain his wearing of slippers, he is able to play the game, likening his presentation of the slipper as an artistic object to Duchamp’s famous exhibition of a lavatory bowl.

By this point, the reader’s patience may have worn thin, for by this time he would surely have found a locksmith, rather than book into a hotel and subject himself to a succession of farcical situations. Perhaps he has been traumatised by the fact his wife has recently left him, but that plot line is not developed. So the novel’s appeal rests increasingly on the fact it is very short, and presumably provides a light, quirky couple of hours of escapism for a French reader. For others, it is quite informative, with a brief history of the charentaise slipper, some useful vocabulary for French footwear – I learned that “les santiags” are cowboy boots, and every conceivable pun and idiom to do with feet- “faire des pieds et des mains” translating as “to move heaven and earth” to achieve an objective.

It is possible to read this at a deeper level: not only as a reminder to avoid judging others too quickly by their appearance, but also as a fable on the merits of non-conformity. Here, the author may become a little pretentious in having a hotel receptionist who resembles Buster Keaton read “Bartleby”, which I cannot be the only reader not to know without looking it up, was a novel by the American Hermann Melville. Trainee lawyer Bartleby causes consternation by refusing one of his boss’s instructions, on the grounds, “I prefer not to”.

This is the kind of novel which may improve on a second reading, but I remained a little disappointed by the rather hurried and trite ending.

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