“This is the first time I’ve been persecuted by my characters.”
There must be a lot of great benefits to being a writer–lots of down stuff too, no doubt, but it’s the complications of authorship I thought of as I read the delightful novel The Martins from author David Foenkinos.
In The Martins, a Parisian author has hit a roadblock. He’s “struggling” to write when he decides that his fictional characters fill him with “boredom.” Desperate, he decides that the first person he sees in the street will be the subject of his next book. He expects to see the mysterious woman who works in the travel agency below his apartment, so he’s disappointed when he sees an elderly woman crossing the road “pulling a purple shopping trolley.” The woman is grandmother, Madeleine Tricot, a woman whose life on the surface seems ordinary and boring. Madeleine is only too happy to talk to the author and soon he’s soaking up details of her career in the fashion industry, a wise, steady but not thrilling marriage, and a lover who suddenly departed for California.
Madeleine’s middle-aged daughter, Valérie insists on being included in the book, and that involves the author meeting Valérie’s family: Patrick her stressed-out husband, their 15-year-old son Jérémie “lazy and lethargic,” and 17-year-old Lola who is openly hostile. At first, the author thinks that “there was something relaxing about having characters prepared to take charge of the story,” but as the author is dragged into various unsavoury situations involving the Martins, he learns that dealing with real people instead of fictional characters is a lot more work. He notes:
For the first time in my life, I am being manipulated by one of my characters.
While the author starts out seeing himself as a passive sponge, an observer, a listener, soaking up details of real life, he is, instead, written in to the Martins’ lives in various ways. As he is drawn into the Martins’ lives, each of the family members give him a role to play. Lola wants the author to have a chat with her boyfriend. Valérie wants to know if the author is married and she is eager to delve into the secrets of his love life. Authors are supposed to manipulate the characters for the plot, but in The Martins, it looks as though the author is the one filling the needs of the family. Complications escalate, and life for the author becomes messy.
I had infiltrated a tired family, trapped on the wheel of routine; passengers on the same ship who brushed past each other without ever really meeting.
The fact that the Martins may soon see their lives in print, has a ripple effect; it’s a bit like reality TV when people know that the camera is rolling. Some dramatic developments take place which may very possibly have been created by the Martins for the sake of the book’s plot. The author’s presence in his characters’ lives cannot help but impact the book that he is going to write:
I had to be careful, my characters were capable of falsifying reality to present themselves in the best possible light.
The author is a marvellous narrator, with the perfect pitch of self-analysis and contemplation. This delightful novel takes a playful approach to serious questions such the role of the author, the author’s interpretation of events, and the lines between fiction and non-fiction. The author admits “I was altering the trajectories of the lives I wanted to describe,” and thus we see that the process of writing inevitably alters the author and his ‘real-life’ subjects.
Review copy. Translated by Sam Taylor