- Up From Brittany:A New Voice on the French Literary Scene
Pierre-Alain Tilliette is a Breton writer, who lives with his family in Paris, where he is Conservateur des fonds étrangers at the Bibliothèque de l'Hôtel de Ville. The tragi-comic inventiveness of his fiction, with its Gaelic humor and extraordinary linguistic virtuosity, has made a small stir in France, but is still virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. His first novel, Gapos: vies chimériques, published by LePassage in 2011, described in Le Monde as "une des excellentes surprises de ce début de l'année" ("one of the delightful surprises of the beginning of this year"), placed him squarely in the lineage of Rabelais to Joyce. In 2015, Tilliette's second Bildungsroman-gone-awry, Un sentiment humain, lived up to that promise: "déroutant de complexité mais toujours saisissant" ("puzzling by its complexity but always engaging").1 Tilliette's humane sensibility and hilarious use of popular French idioms propel the reader forward through the inchoate yearnings of a motley assortment of characters whose fates play out in an ancient house on the Brittany coast. Immediately upon opening these novels, English-speaking readers of French and native French speakers discover, as if for the first time, the creative resources of the language they thought, like Molière's M. Jourdain, they had been speaking all their lives. Translating Tilliette's work will be a daunting task.
"Gapos, c'est moi" ("Gapos, that's me"), says the narrator, but without the dark irony of Flaubert, more in the spirit of an apologetic idealist "qui souffre avec les autres mais qui ne peut pas les souffrir" ("who suffers for others even though he finds them insufferable") (33), a forlorn hidalgo "qui ne tient plus debout que grâce aux articulations coincées de son armure rouillée" ("who can only stand up thanks to the blocked joints of his rusty armor") (76). "[…] j'ai demandé à Gapos de partir en ma compagnie, de m'aider à traverser" ("I asked Gapos to leave with me, to help me to cross over" (16). Gapos will be the ferryman, the balsero, who carries with him the fragile embers of his and the narrator's dreams on a fabulous ocean of words. Even when nothing is happening to this "gap os" (gap of bones?), besides [End Page 186] the seemingly most trivial interruptions of ordinary existence, the reader is launched on an unexpectedly delightful linguistic adventure, with the narrator's warning: "Cy entrez, vous, que rebute pas rédhibitoire l'idée qu'une infinitésimale aventure, aux longs et complexes préparatifs pour un imperceptible dénouement incertain, va se jouer là" ("Enter here, you who are not put off by the crippling idea of an infinitesimal adventure with long and complex preparations for an imperceptible and uncertain outcome") (13). Embarked on the flow of consciousness of a loveable everyman, marooned "entre être ou ne plus être" ("between being or no longer being") (17), who quits his job in the Ministry of Dead Letters, one rediscovers in Tilliette's "bouquin qui pointe tout juste son nez hors de la marée innombrable des mots" ("little book pointing its nose just above the tide of numberless words" (11) the incomparable satirical energy of the French language.
The semblance of a plot begins to emerge by chance in this valiantly self-doubting version of a Bildungsroman, as various characters, all preoccupied by their own trivial pursuits, encounter Gapos during his search for an answer to the big question: "Tu mourras! et auparavant, tu bosseras! Merde alors..." ("You will die! and before that you'll work like a dog! Shit...") (96). But if Gapos is a would-be philosopher bent on making sense out of contingency by writing an Aléatoire Encylopédie Individuelle Ontologiquement Ubiquiste, (a Random, Ontologically Ubiquitous Individual Encyclopedia), he is also a humble homme moyen sensuel looking for "une âme soeur" ("a soul mate"), "une femme qui m...