“Had I made a mistake with my life? What was I doing as a lawyer?”
In Antoine Lauren’s witty novella The Portrait, a Paris lawyer is given the chance to reinvent himself, and through a seemingly simple act of impersonation he becomes the sort of man he believes he was intended to be.
Married lawyer Pierre-Franςois Chaumont has been a ‘collector’ since the age of nine. He started with an eraser collection, but over the years, encouraged by the words of a flamboyant uncle, his collection has become, at least in his wife Charlotte’s eyes, unmanageable. When The Portrait opens, “Charlotte had succeeded in exiling” the “fabulous collections to one room” of their Paris apartment, but the placement of Chaumont’s treasures continues to be an ongoing battle between the married couple.
When it comes to buying antiques, Chaumont compares himself to a gambler and has a fantasy that he’s banned from entering his favourite auction house (50 metres away from his office) even as he attempts to slip inside wearing various disguises. This question of identity raises its head one afternoon when Chaumont buys a portrait of a 18th century nobleman. Chaumont thinks the portrait looks just like him, but no one else sees the resemblance. Chaumont enters an existential crisis, referring to the portrait as:
That portrait of me, painted two and a half centuries ago.
When Charlotte can’t see the resemblance, her husband interprets this as a moral failing on her part, and after reading aloud to Charlotte a passage from Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas, things go downhill:
The distant coldness that existed between us over the next few days reached its height at bedtime. I no longer desired her in any way at all. I now considered her nothing but a rival, a soul that had always refused to be in tune with mine. An enemy, in fact. As if she were aware of how I now viewed her, Charlotte rallied her troops, drawn from amongst our close friends.
Alienated from his wife and their friends, Chaumont, a man who appreciates the past much more than the present, begins to question the validity of his existence; he becomes obsessed with the portrait and tries to track down the coat of arms on the right hand corner. …
I’ve passed over other books by this author as they sounded too sticky sweet and whimsical for my tastes. The Portrait is primarily ironically funny, a story of identity and how far we will go to get what we want, and how far some will go to ignore the facts. There are venom bombs throughout the story, so we get a very funny bedroom scene with Chaumont and Charlotte who, rejecting his mistimed advances is “totally hostile, an icy, frigid mermaid.”
But then, had everything we had lived through together just been a misunderstanding? Like an antique that you buy, love and cherish, and which for years makes you think of all the troubled times it has passed through-the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution, the Siege of Moscow-but which you notice one morning is nothing but a vulgar fake made ten years ago?
The Portrait asks what would happen if we were given a chance to walk away from a life we found tedious, crude, and worthless. Would we take that chance?
Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce