Category Archives: Laurain Antoine

Smoking Kills: Antoine Laurain

“It’s never a good idea for an evil bastard to imprint himself on the retina of a murderer. I don’t advise it: it might lead to an idea for a spot of entertainment on an idle afternoon.”

Antoine Laurain’s wickedly funny novel, Smoking Kills, examines the extent, drive, and unexpected consequences of addiction through the acts of a man who seeks the high of “the good fairy Nictoine.”  Middle-aged Parisian headhunter Fabrice Valantine, an avid smoker for years, isn’t ready for the smoking ban which threatens to ruin his life by depriving him of one of his greatest pleasures. The threat against his smoking addiction finds little sympathy with his non-smoking, art curator wife. Plus then there’s the little matter of Fabrice leaving the unfortunate comment “makes me want to vomit,” in a guest book following the show of “Inflammatory Art” from pretentious “artist” Damon Bricker. Bricker, nicknamed “the pigeon roaster” by Fabrice:

Cheerfully chargrilled his animal subjects, using his blowtorch like other artists use their brushes. His installation of a life-sized chicken house, complete with hens cockerels and a fox, had caused a sensation at the previous years’s FIAC art fair in Paris.

After an embarrassing incident at an art show, however, Fabrice is encouraged by his non-smoking wife, Sidonie, to seek hypnosis therapy to help him stop smoking. The hypnosis is successful, and yet … Fabrice discovers that life without a “nicotine fix,” is lacking zest. He begins smoking again, only to discover that the pleasure factor has been removed, and by a strange set of circumstances, Fabrice discovers that nicotine can once again be pleasurable under certain circumstances….

Laurain sets up his main character into a set of devilishly clever circumstances: While Sidonie flies to New York to attend an art show, Fabrice’s situation at work changes for the worse. Exiled to a windowless basement office, he’s then required to attend a pool party with the young, fit, boss. What a brilliant humiliation from the author, to place middle-aged out-of-shape office workers awkwardly into swimsuits which reveal cellulite, body hair and flab.

The sight of the entire office staff in swimsuits was certainly strange. Bizarrely immodest. Some people looked taller or smaller than usual. The women had bigger or smaller chests than one might have thought. I wondered what my colleagues thought about me. They, too, would be thinking: “Goodness, Valantine isn’t hairy at all, and he’s musclier than I thought.” Or perhaps the opposite.

The new boss has created a situation of dominance:

He was standing on the diving board, microphone in hand. His athletic musculature gleamed, but not with pool water: he must have slathered himself in oil, like a bodybuilder. He delivered a short speech about the Piscine Pontoise, a gem of thirties architecture, with its thirty-three metre pool, and about how we would all get to know each other better through the joy of sport, and other nonsense. He looked like an Aryan SS officer, glamorised in a film by Leni Riefenstahl. With his short blond slightly swept-back hair, a black and white photograph of him would easily pass for an old piece of Nazi propaganda.

I’ve read three Laurain novels to date:

The President’s Hat

The Portrait

And now Smoking Kills which is my favourite so far. How delightful that Laurain seems to be getting darker and darker. The President’s Hat was a touch whimsical while The Portrait examined the life of man who loses his sense of identity and sinks into madness. Smoking Kills is the story of  a man who, in order to recreate a nicotine high, turns to murder.  Pushed to his limits. Fabrice uncovers a talent for murder and revenge. I’m not a smoker, but I’ve known smokers so determined that even a diagnosis of lung cancer and the removal of one lung has not dimmed their enthusiasm for cigarettes.

Smoking Kills is very funny in a twisted dark way, but apart from that, it’s full of Laurain observations and wisdom:

Sidonie inhabited her world, and I mine. My world was the more real: people came with a price; they were hired for a given time, for their skills, and paid handsomely in exchange. The whole system made the world go round, and created jobs for other people, drawing on their skills in turn. My world was logical. Sidonie’s was irrational. Serious, highly serious, but irrational. Artworks were worth more than the men who had created them, often achieving colossal sums of money at sale. A single picture could be worth as much as a small business; one museum’s holdings could equate to the GDP of an African state. The galleries played the role of the big financial groups, everything was quoted on a kind of invisible stock exchange, and the dead were worth more than the living.  

An I’m ending on this poignant quote:

Fathers are unwitting objects of fascination for their daughters, and the interlude of their childhood leaves a bittersweet taste: never again, for anyone else, will we be domestic demi-gods, greeted like long-awaited saviours when we come home for dinner at the end of the working day. The years go by and their joy becomes less and less palpable, until one day they fail to greet us at all. This time is past and the countdown reaches zero. We had known it would happen, we just hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie

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The President’s Hat: Antoine Laurain

‘The important events in our lives are always the result of a sequence of tiny details.”

Last year I read Antoine Laurain’s delightful book: The Portrait, a story of a man whose life is transformed when he buys a painting of an 18th century nobleman. I’d passed over other books by this author before, and so I decided to read Laurain’s earlier books.

The President’s Hat is somewhat reminiscent of The Portrait in its premise that the possession of an object can change lives. Whereas in The Portrait, one man’s life is changed, The President’s Hat concerns a handful of people, serially, who come into possession of a hat that belongs to François Mitterrand.

the president's hat

This short novel begins with a somewhat despondent Parisian, Daniel Mercier treating himself to a fancy dinner. His wife and child are out of town, and Daniel has a new, unpleasant boss to deal with. Daniel hopes that the dinner, ostensibly, “a bachelor evening,”  will allow him to relax and forget his work troubles for a few hours anyway. Luck seems to favour Daniel that night. Another guest cancelled, so Daniel gets a table, and then, a few minutes later, to his shock, Mitterand sits at the adjacent table.

Daniel can’t help but eavesdrop on the topics of conversation between Mitterand and his dinner companions. Dinner over, Mitterand forgets his hat, Daniel grabs it, and from that moment, Daniel becomes a changed man. …

The hat passes through various hands and each time the life of its wearer alters for the better. Daniel, of course, knows who owned the hat, so it’s fairly easy, assuming that Daniel is an impressionable person, to accept that the hat grants a sense of confidence and power. But other people who find the hat are unaware of its origin, and the hat still manages to transform the lives of those who wear it. So in that sense, the story has a thread of magical whimsy.

In one section, a man imagines a “parallel life” in which he did not discover the hat:

In this ‘parallel life’ he was still wearing his old sheepskin jacket and had his beard, had never opened the door of his study and still went every Friday to his analyst. What Aslan, called a ‘parallel life’ was actuality a perfect illustration of quantum mechanics and of applied developments in probability theory, starting from the hypothesis that everything we do in our lives creates a new universe which does not in any way wipe out the previous universe. 

(Since I am fond of the Multiverse theory, I liked that quote)

I am not overly fond, in theory, of a novel centered on an object which passes through various hands. That said, however, The President’s Hat is a light, pleasant read.  I preferred The Portrait as the latter is a shade darker, moving from eccentricity to delusion or even possible madness. The President’s Hat is an optimistic tale which focuses on the ebullient nature of a handful of Parisians. It’s fun to speculate that an object would have the ability to cause reversals in fortunes. Would that it were so easy.

Translated by Gallic Books (review copy)

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The Portrait: Antoine Laurain

“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.

The Portrait

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?

Delightful.

review copy

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

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