Red Haze by Christian Gailly

Last year I read The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. It’s the story of a Paris bookshop whose owners decide to take the high road and sell only ‘good books.’ A secret committee of writers create a list of ‘the best books ever.’ These books are not best sellers, and are instead those wonderful little gems we readers dream of finding. Anyway, after reading A Novel Bookstore, I wanted that list. Unfortunately the list was fictional but that didn’t stop the author from dropping some names throughout the pages, and I was right there taking notes. One of the titles was Madame Solario, which I read and enjoyed. But there were other names too–some I’d never heard of. One of these names was French novelist, Christian Gailly.

There are a few of Gailly’s novels translated into English, so I actually had a choice. I selected Red Haze for its plot (and look at that great cover), but I really wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this novel as Gailly is known as a minimalist. At 108 pages (and that includes several double-sided black or near black pages), they weren’t joking about minimalism. My copy is translated by Brian Evenson and David Beus.

The novel is narrated by unemployed biologist-would-be-novelist, Sylvère Fonda–a man who gets mixed up in an incident involving a man he knows called Lucien.  I was intrigued by the plot, and here’s the opening paragraph:

A rake, that’s what he was, a lovelace. We get this odd word from a character living in a novel entitled Clarissa Harlowe, the work of English novelist Samuel Richardson, the son of a cabinet-maker who became a printer before turning to writing. But above all the name marries love to lace, net, snare.

It didn’t bother me that he slept around, he never pursued my wife, but still, I would often tell myself: one day unlike the others he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.

After that opening, I was hooked into the tale.

Lucien is a womaniser who attacks a woman named Rebecca Lodge; she fights back and then runs away. Sylvère, who’s a stutterer, becomes involved and simultaneously loses his speech impediment when he finds the wounded Lucien. Lucien gives Sylvère the task of tracking down Rebecca and apologising for his act. The impact of the incident leaves a deep impression on Sylvère, but Sylvère’s wife, Suzanne doesn’t understand his fixation. And she certainly doesn’t approve of her husband’s trip to Copenhagen to track down Rebecca Lodge.

There are no pleasant aspects to this lean and mean tale of obsession and revenge.  All of the relationships are abnormal and twisted, and I can’t say more without giving away too many aspects of the plot. Is Lucien’s desire to apologise sincere? Isn’t what he did a little beyond apology? And given how Rebecca retaliated, isn’t an apology rather beside the point. What about Sylvère’s motives? Why on earth would any sane person want to get mixed up in what happened? Sylvère doesn’t even like Lucien and admits that he is “not my friend, just an experiment in hatred.” Let’s just say that Sylvère is playing with fire when he tracks down Rebecca. I should make it clear that while I write these questions, it’s not because I had a problem with the credibility of what happens, but rather I am chewing over the destructive and self-destructive nature of the characters. This is in many ways a haters’ triangle–an inversion of the familiar lovers’ triangle.

The details of the story of what happened between Lucien and Rebecca are not immediately apparent; they are teased out over time, and I found myself re-reading past passages in light of newly discovered information. The author has a deliberately recursive style–with old information repeated while tagging on other sometimes startling information. We are told just a fragment of an incident, for example, and then the incident will be repeated with additional details. This style frustrated me at first until I got used to it and could see just what the author was up to. And while Gailly’s style may be minimalism, it’s minimalism inside a maze, so the text becomes a puzzle to be solved and understood. Gailly is compared by critics to Nabokov. I’ll leave that for others to decide.

The narrator, Sylvère also consciously adopts that recursive style. At one point, he’s tells a dark, disturbing tale about something he witnessed, but towards the end of the book he adds just one line that monumentally changes the story he’s told before. This is brilliant, but I won’t write the quotes as this would ruin the impact for any future reader. It’s through this approach that we, as readers, grasp the power of control when it comes to just how much story is told or withheld, and of course, Sylvère has been torturing us with this since page one:

This repetition is deliberate. I entreat my future editor, if one is found to publish me, not to omit it. In music in the past, they repeated what the listener liked to hear. Me, I repeat what the reader hates to read. My goal is to torment his mind. I want him to tremble. I’m dreaming. To keep him from sleeping at night. The famous struggle against the dark. And then also because I think this scene, in its complete, family version, is infinitely more important than the little story I’m telling you, but since I’ve come this far, I’m going to finish it, before a new slaughter starts, so let’s hurry.

This is an infinitely nihilistic tale, and all the characters are either unpleasant or unsympathetic, so the relationships they share aren’t exactly healthy. The story’s dark twists combined with its sense of impending doom probably explain why I enjoyed it. I am, however, used to meatier fare, and to be honest, I finished this feeling a bit cheated and wishing it had been about 200 pages longer. As fate would have it, after finishing Red Haze, I picked up another novel that was so horribly bloated, I unexpectedly found myself preferring Gailly’s style, and I have a feeling that I could grow to appreciate Gailly more with subsequent novels. I’ll be ready for him next time….

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Red Haze by Christian Gailly

  1. leroyhunter

    Sounds great – yes, fantastic cover. I’m completely intrigued.

    Your final comments about bloated follow-ups don’t bode well for the Emants review. Pity, I thought it looked interesting.

  2. I’m a little prejudiced against this as I’m usually not attracted by the authors published by Les Editions de Minuit, the French publisher of Gailly.
    If I recall well from my little expedition in bookstores after reading A Novel Bookstore, A LOT of the writers given in the book are published by Les Editions de Minuit.
    I wonder how it looks like in French, though the French flow of words is pretty obvious in the translation, according to the quotes you typed.

    • leroyhunter

      How come you’re not keen on Les Editions de Minuit, bookaround? Do they have a particular style or agenda?

      I was also going to say that Guy reviewing this yet again shows how badly served translated work is in anglophone countries – I think I’m pretty interested in this sort of stuff but have never heard of Gailly (that’s partly my own fault of course).

      Plus the fact that Guy’s pointer itself came from another novel.

      • I can’t explain this right. I said “prejudiced” and that means irrational. What is not irrational though, is that when I browse through books in a bookstore, I’m never tempted to buy one from this publisher. I’ve been reading other blogs for a year now and whenever I read a post and end up thinking “I want to read this”, I discover that the French translation is published by 10:18, Babel or Rivages Noir, the exact publishers I’m attracted to when I’m in a bookstore. So marketing and covers have nothing to do with it.
        After reading A Novel Bookstore, I looked for all the titles mentioned in a bookstore (the list is on my blog on the reading list page, if you’re interested). I put down all the books by this publisher and bought Novel with Cocaine. I talked about this a little bit in my post on Cossé’s novel.
        I put down those books because they sounded unnecessarily bleak and because they sounded like the style experiment was more important than the story. And I’m not interested in lit crit or literary experiments. That’s not why I read. So anytime I see a book with more emphasis on the style (like La Disparition, ie let’s write a book without the letter ‘e’) I’m not tempted. For me the style is there to serve a good story. It has no interest if the plot is weak.
        That’s just my opinion. I’m not saying Gailly and the writers published by Les Editions de Minuit aren’t good or worth reading.

        • I know what you mean. There are some publishers that give me pause–but mostly for content not style, so I can relate to what you are saying. After a while, if you read a lot, you can recognise that some publishers have a tendency to publish certain titles you like (or dislike). No guarantee, of course, but there are some publishers I look at more than others. Thinking New York Review Classics here as a good example.

          BTW, I would avoid a book that excluded a letter.

    • I’m curious to see how I feel about a second, and that’s just as well as I have another one on my shelf.

      After finishing it, I think I would have enjoyed more character development but on the other hand the beauty of this is its sparse qualities. When I wrote the review and considered the recursiveness of parts of the story, I have to admit to being impressed with Gailly’s skill.

  3. I honestly like the cover but I’m not sure I would like to read it although I found the review interesting. I think these “hate-triangles” are more common than one would think. I think some people just trigger something very dark in others that they weren’t even aware of and that is oddly fascinating. Like doing something bad when you are usually always good. Bad people are also often more charismatic, maybe because they are often very true to themselves.
    I am not prejudiced towards Les Editions de Minuit but I can see where bookaroundthecorner is coming from. I think I would like the style of this one. I like minimalism often. I often find novels bloated.

    • It’s a clever little novel, but I think its style limits its audience. It begins as a horrible act between Rebecca and Lucien and then the ultimate dark undercurrent is between Sylvère and Lucien. Rebecca was just the catalyst.

  4. It sounds interesting, possibly even refreshing, but not perhaps one to rush out for.

    Actually, I’ll be interested to hear your take on the other you have. It does sound very clever and that does sometimes have an appeal.

  5. I just got Un Soir au Club. Reading your review I thought I’d like to read one of his novels. I had to get this one when I read the description. Wonder if there is some similarity to Sonny’s Blues, one of my favourite short stories.

  6. Who wrote Sonny’s Blues?

  7. James Baldwin. It’s probably one of the best short stories ever written.

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