A few months ago, I read On the Edge, a German novel by Markus Werner, the story of two men and their relationships with an enigmatic, elusive woman who appears only in memories. Electrico W by French author Hervé le Tellier is the tale of two men who desire the same woman, but in this case, the woman is not particularly interesting, and this raises the question, of course, why people are attracted to someone they don’t even like.
Journalist Vincent, the narrator of Electrico W lives in Lisbon as the Portuguese correspondent for a French newspaper, and he’s assigned to write an investigative piece on a murder trial of a serial killer who wears chain mail underwear. Following his father’s suicide and the break-up of his relationship with a woman called Irene, Vincent decided to leave Paris and buy a small apartment in Lisbon, his mother’s birthplace and the origin of some pleasant childhood memories. Now in Lisbon, Vincent has two goals: to finish a novel about Pescheux d’Herbinville (he already has a title) and to translate a “collection of bizarre short stories” by the obscure writer Jaime Monstestrela (there’s a fictional biography on Wikipedia, if interested). Living in a rented room, Vincent’s isolation comes to an end when Antonio, a war photographer, telephones and asks Vincent to move in with him so that they can follow the Pinheiro murder trial together. There’s a reversal situation already afoot between the two men: Vincent is French, has left Paris and now plans to live in Lisbon while Lisbon native Antonio has settled in Paris. When the two men meet, Antonio confesses that he hasn’t been back to Lisbon for years and mumbles that “a thing with a woman” is the root cause, so here we have one man who fled Paris to forget a woman, and another man who has moved to Paris and hasn’t returned home because of some situation with a woman.
With stops and starts in the trial that leave the two men with time on their hands, they swap stories about their pasts and some old love affairs. Sharing identical hotel suites that are “exact mirror images of each other” connected by doors, the two men soon learn that they have much more in common than they realized.
Vincent gauges that Antonio is mired in a sticky relationship, but it’s a relationship in which Antonio has the upper hand. This is contrast to Vincent’s now broken relationship with Irene where Vincent was always the underdog, hoping for a bone, and he’s still obsessed about a woman who really wasn’t worth his attention:
Antonio didn’t love this woman, and I thought of Irene again, and the memory of her terrifies me because it’s everywhere in me, ready to spring up as soon as I’m alone, when all it really is is regret.
She had agreed to see me more than once, had accepted my tender advances, and even, though she rejected my too urgent desire every time, I like to think she always did so gently. She asked only that I be patient. I waited for her love to blossom, as she insisted it should. My feelings grew stronger by the day, and more painful too. I had fallen in love with every detail of her face, with her girlish grin, and even her cruelty.
Perhaps it was the distance she maintained that chained her to me, in the same way that the coolness I sensed in Antonio must have been holding the woman who called him from Paris.
That’s enough of the plot. What follows is an elaborate, gently amusing, and yet still poignant dance between the characters as Vincent dreams up a ‘plan’ to fix things. Through his characters Hervé le Tellier examines what it means to be ‘in love,’ and it should come as no surprise that love–that all-encompassing word–is one of the most complicated emotions on the planet. Love to one person means control, dominance and ownership, but to another it may mean worship and submission. I have a saying: “You don’t want some people to love you,” and by that I mean that there are some people whose love is a cruel, corrupting emotion that contaminates and is best avoided. The extremes of love also appear in more subtle forms–the book that Vincent is writing concerns Pescheux d’Herbinville who was, possibly, the participant in a duel that killed mathematician Évariste Galois in 1832, and the root cause of the duel is thought to be … a woman. Author Hervé Le Tellier thus seeds the clever idea that while duels dramatically solved fights over women in the 19th century (and earlier), these days men have only their wits and their wooing skills–such as they are–to rely on. Since Vincent’s wooing skills have already proved to fail miserably, that leaves his wits….
The story examines first love in all its pristine power, and then there’s also an examination of what love means to different people. Some people take love lightly–whereas others love deeply. Do we change how we love with each new relationship or are we fundamentally the same–the variant being solely the object of our desire? Why does Vincent love Irene (he loved her the moment he saw her) as she’s so obviously not worth Vincent’s obsessive devotion, and if she isn’t worth this sort of attention, then the obsession must spring from Vincent himself. What happens when a woman who enjoys her power over a man, misusing him cruelly, discovers that she’s now longer worshipped? Will she move on to another victim or try to revive that worship in her former admirer?
Electrico W, which is the name of a tram line in Lisbon, is written as a novel by Vincent, who after seeing Antonio as a “character in a book,” decides to write a novel about his experiences in Lisbon, and it’s this story that takes us back to Antonio’s youth in the days of Salazar’s fascist dictatorship. Hervé le Tellier is a member of the French literary group Oulipo, founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François le Lionnais. I was a bit worried that I’d end up with a novel that had no punctuation, but all the play comes in the story itself in the blend of fact and fiction, the comic with the tragic.
Translated by Adriana Hunter
Electrico W led me to think about John Lee’s Love Theory, and the way he identified six “styles” or “colors” of Love. If you are curious to see what kind of lover you are, here’s a quiz: