Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

I came across the novel Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan thanks to Emma. The novel seemed to have a considerable impact on her, so when the book became available in English late last year, I was lucky enough to get a review copy. I really like modern French fiction, but most of it, of course, doesn’t make it to translation.

Underground Time has to be the ultimate novel for its portrayal of the toxic work environment, and I suspect that the story will strike a chord for those readers who’ve ever felt trapped in their jobs. I’m not talking about a job in which someone is underappreciated, underpaid or bored to tears. No, I’m talking about psychological warfare waged between an employee and a boss, and a boss who plays dirty but still sticks to the rules. Employees always have the option to move on if a job becomes too stressful, but in this case, Mathilde, a single mother, a widow with three children, doesn’t have the luxury of a second income. She needs her job, and the question becomes, as the novel continues, just how much she will take before she goes postal.

The novel begins on the morning of May 20 when Mathilde wakes up to the day a clairvoyant told her would be significant as a “man would save her at this turning point in her life.” So what does Mathilde need to be saved from? What is going on in her life that is so terrible? The answers to these questions gradually roll out as the novel continues, and it’s a matter of Mathilde’s workplace environment becoming gradually and indescribably untenable.

Mathilde has spent ages looking for where it all started–the beginning, the very beginning, the first clue, the first rift. She’d take things in reverse order, tracking backwards, trying to understand how it had happened, how it began. Each time she would come to the same point, the same date: that presentation one Monday morning in September. 

Mathilde is the “deputy director of marketing in the main health and nutrition division of an international food company for more than eight years.” It was a good eight years until it started to go sour following a meeting between Mathilde, her boss Jacques and a “well-known institute.” The meeting doesn’t go well, and Mathilde ventures an opinion which contradicts Jacques. Up to this point, Mathilde who was picked by Jacques from an approved pool of job candidates, felt grateful for his confidence in her, and she “was used to agreeing with him.” Jacques has a reputation for being notoriously difficult and temperamental, but this has never been an issue between them before. 

The problems between Jacques and Mathilde begin following the meeting. It’s all very subtle at first, but make no mistake, this is pyschological warfare. Jacques begins by feigning surprise when she leaves at 6:30 and then come personal comments disguised as ‘concern.’ Suddenly her handwriting is “illegible” and she looks like “crap.” At first Mathilde is the only one to feel the sting of these remarks, but then she’s cut out of the loop of communication, and things become increasingly worse….

That was the day she realised that Jacques’s plan to destroy her was not confined to her own department, that he had begun discrediting her further afield and that it was completely within his power to do so.

Of course, Mathilde tries various approaches but each one seems to bring reprisals in this “absurd, invisible struggle.”

As Mathilde’s story unfolds, a parallel narrative forms of Thibault, a Parisian doctor who once dreamed on being a surgeon until an accident claimed several fingers. Chapters alternate between Mathilde’s story of  trying to survive the stress of total alienation in the workplace and Thibault as he breaks off an emotionally unsatisfying relationship with a woman. Both Thibault and Mathilde are revealed as lonely people who long for the communication which seems to be denied them:

His life is nothing like those of the characters in that French soap opera which was such a big hit in the 1980s. The doctors in that were brave and alert–they dashed through the night, parked on the pavement and ran up the stairs four at a time. There’s nothing heroic about him. He’s got his hands in the shit, and the shit sticks to them. His life does without sirens and flashing lights.His life is made up of sixty per cent nasal inflammation and forty per cent loneliness, That’s all his life is; a ringside view of the full-scale of the disaster.

I have a problem with passive characters, so I was annoyed in spots with both Thibault and Mathilde. I wanted them to do something, and at one point in the novel, I silently urged Mathilde to take drastic action. The chapters that tell Mathilde’s story have a stronger resonace than those which describe Thibault, well for this reader at least. Mathilde’s story is told with the stinging pain of experience while I wasn’t entirely convinced about Thibault’s decision to dump a woman with whom he has great sex but who is disappointing when it comes to affection. But that small issue aside, Thibault’s story shows a barren life with depressing encounters as he visits patient after patient in their homes–people locked into lives of disappointment, disease and loneliness.

  Underground Time reminds me of the premise of the film Crime d’Amour–a film that started out very strongly in its depiction of the powerlessness of an employee when faced with her boss’s desire to annihilate her career and destroy her mentally. Crime d’Amour took the easy way out, however, by turning into a thriller. I would rather it had stayed focused on the psychological warfare between a boss and her underling. Underground Time does just that, and the author creates incredible tension between main character Mathilde and her boss even as she paints the picture of this difficult relationship complete with Jacques’s quirky, tantrum-driven behaviour which on one level seems eccentric until Mathilde becomes the target of his viciousness.

For Emma’s review go here

Underground Time translated into English by George Miller

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17 Comments

Filed under de Vigan Delphine, Fiction

17 responses to “Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

  1. I read this after her review as well and liked it a great deal.
    I experineced something very similar and achieved to have my ex-boss fired in the end. The battle was long and intense and I can’t say I didn’t pay a price. I wouldn’t blame anyone who couldn’t fight. It takes a lot of energy and a woman in Mathilde’s place, single, with children …. Usually people change jobs.
    I thought the book was so topical and also the way it described living in a big city, they way paths cross… I want to read more of her.

  2. I’m also a fan of modern French fiction which, like much French cinema, manages to be thoughtful and gripping at the same time. This looks like an excellent example of what I mean. Thanks for the nod.

    • French film tip: The Big Picture. Watched it the other night and found it very powerful indeed. (based on the book by Douglas Kennedy)

      • The Big Picture? Les grands esprits se rencontrent! I watched it last week, I found it powerful too. (The French title is better: L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie)

        • I saw the French title right at the beginning of the film and it certainly makes more sense. The English title is the same as the book. The author, Kennedy, also wrote the Woman in the Fifth-also made into a film with Kristin Scott Thomas. I haven’t seen the film yet but the trailer looks good.

  3. Sounds like an excellent read … I really know very little about contemporary French fiction. Now, why do you have problems with passive characters – or, to put it more clearly, are you saying that such characters affect your assessment of a book, or simply that passive people annoy you so when you come across them in a book you become engaged?

    • All of the above Gummie: I become very annoyed with passive characters. Yes that makes me engaged with the book but I also enjoy it less. I want people to fight back. Whatever it takes. I suppose I don’t understand passivity., and this can sometimes lead me to give up on a book.

  4. I’m glad you liked it although you enjoyed it less than me. Her description of working life in Paris is accurate. The metro, you can’t imagine how true what she describes is.
    Mathilde isn’t passive, she’s broken by a toxic person. Like Guy Haines in Strangers On A Train. She survived her husband’s death, had a job as an executive in a big company which means long hours and difficulties to cope with work and family life. She’s a strong person. The fact that she’s passive in the novel just shows how broken she is, how such people as Jacques can destroy a well-balanced person.
    I talked about this book around me. One of my acquaintances lived through this and she thought this novel excellent and relevant.

    I agree with you, Thibault is less convincing. I enjoyed how he experiences travelling in Paris by day on the surface while Mathilde is underground.
    I also liked the ending, Delphine de Vigan didn’t go for the obvious.

    • Emma: I’ve never really liked big cities and I wouldn’t like to live in one, so I have no idea what it would be like to live and travel in one as Mathilde does. I also liked the ending. I was worried there for a minute that it was going to be a little too easy, but the author pulled away from that scenario.

      • Hear, hear, re big cities. Many years ago when we we living in Southern Cal we did a big NW trip. We bypassed San Fran, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. We did though go to Victoria. I live in Australia’s capital city but our population is under 360,000. Still manageable …

  5. This looks just up my street. There have been quite a few workplace novels in recent years (Joshua Ferris When We Came to The End for example) and my understanding from my two adult children and their partners is that the workplace has become a very unfeeling place where the units of production are expected to perform whatever the circumstances of their lives – I could tell you a story or two myseslf although I’ve not worked for four years now.

    A job with the title “deputy director of marketing in the main health and nutrition division of an international food company” cannot lead to an easy life can it.

  6. This is already very much on my radar, thanks to Emma and Caroline’s reviews. Few authors really address the workplace, I suspect as few have had normal jobs for enough time to really understand it.

    It’s that which really makes it tempting. Workplace bullying is often very subtle, and it’s far from unusual for a skilled bully to operate in such a way that there’s nothing concrete to complain of; in fact to make it so that complaining makes it look like it’s the victim who has the problem.

    Anyway, definitely on my TBR list, though not yet an immediate purchase due to my rather pressing reading backlog.

    • The author begins with the character, Mathlde already at breaking point, and then she goes backwards in time to show the buildup of hostilities. It felt very believable, and the author (through the character) even addressed the sex issue which was, I thought, vital.

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