We all know that books are not to be judged by their covers, but sometimes the designers make it very difficult for even the most tolerant of readers to keep an open mind. As you can see from the photo to the left, today’s book most certainly falls into that category, a wonderful example of how not to sell literary fiction. Luckily, the version of the book most of you will stumble across has a slightly more appropriate picture on the front – even if there is a hint of what’s to come in this particular image 😉
Raymond Jean’s La lectrice (AKA Reader for Hire) is the story of Marie-Constance, a thirty-four-year-old married woman living in a small French town, with no job or children to distract her. One day a friend makes a surprising suggestion:
“Tu as une merveilleuse voix, c’est idiot de n’en rien faire, et plus idiot encore de rester inactive, une femme doit absolument avoir une occupation à notre époque […] pourquoi ne mets-tu pas une annonce dans les journaux pour proposer d’aller faire la lecture à domicile chez les uns ou les autres?”
p.5 (Actes Sud, 1998)
“You’ve got a wonderful voice, it’s stupid to let it go to waste, and even more stupid to hang around doing nothing, a woman has to have something to occupy herself in the modern age […] why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to go and read to people in their homes?” *** (my translation)
Marie-Constance doesn’t find her friend’s idea such a bad one, and soon enough she’s at the office of the local newspaper, paying the fee to have a small ad inserted in the local newspaper – and then she waits.
Before too long, she receives the first reply, and she’s on her way into her new career as a reader for hire. Her first clients include a teenager in a wheelchair, a rich Hungarian countess with a passion for Karl Marx and a busy mining CEO who wants to become more cultured. In all of her engagements, Marie-Constance tries to be professional, wanting to make a real go of her new direction – the problem is that she’s a woman with a lot of appeal, one who finds it hard to stick to a purely professional relationship…
As many of you will no doubt have realised by now, La lectrice is the original of Peirene Press’ latest offering, Reader for Hire. The Peirene cover is slightly less risqué than the one shown above, but the lipstick smudge shown indicates that the seventeenth in their collection is a slight departure from the usual style of their books. La lectrice may not be a comedy, but it’s a much more uplifting book than most of its Peirene stablemates, easy to read and without the usual death, drama or psychological anguish – which is a *good* thing 😉
Most of the action comes from Marie-Constance’s attempts to be a professional in her chosen career, an endeavour complicated by the fact that the people she reads to don’t exactly make it easy for her. The teenaged Éric is little bother, even if he likes her to wear a skirt which rides up her thighs. The Countess Pázmany, while theoretically bedridden, is determined to take Marxist theory and put it into practice. And then there’s little Clorinde, a clever child with a busy mother who wants her little girl to have a good education – but sometimes girls just want to have fun 😉
The harder Marie-Constance tries to be good, the more things go wrong, and in a town as small as hers word soon gets around. Accused of disturbing the peace, the police soon become involved, even if they’re not exactly sure what she’s done wrong. In truth, her transgressions are of the social variety, practicing aloud what most believe should be done silently.
It takes a while, but eventually we realise why this is all happening. Marie-Constance is fairly matter-of-fact when describing herself and makes efforts to develop a professional appearance for her nascent career:
“Nous avons pris des cafés et des portions de tarte. Roland dit très gentiment que des lunettes m’iraient sûrement bien et me donneraient la petite touche intellectuelle qui me manque peut-être, donc augmenterai ma crédibilité…” (p.37)
“We ordered some coffee and cake. Roland suggested in a kindly manner that glasses would certainly suit me and would lend me that intellectual touch that I might otherwise be missing, increasing my credibility…” ***
The truth, though, is that Marie-Constance is just too charismatic to be a simple reading machine – beautiful, engaging and seductive, she’s a woman who wants to be involved with the world. Very quickly, she finds herself drawn into her clients’ lives, and they’re all to eager to be a part of hers. It’s a subtle reminder of the hypnotic power the written (and spoken) word can have.
La lectrice is great fun, an amusing story with excellent touches of humour, yet it does hide a darker side. The novel paints a picture of people seeking intimacy: the busy CEO and Clorinde’s mother feel the lack of time which their succees entails while Éric and the countess are trapped inside their rooms, desperate for something to brighten the day. The irony is that Marie-Constance herself is in the same situation; the more the story progresses, the clearer it becomes that she too is in need of a little diversion and intimacy…
The story is fairly simple, but an excellent read nonetheless, and there’s really only one word to describe it – French. La lectrice has a rather casual un-Anglo-Saxon approach to intimacy, exemplified by the husband’s surprising attitude when Marie-Constance asks for some rather delicate advice (and a bedroom scene which has to be seen to be believed…). It may be a little clichéd to talk about Gallic flair, but if the cap fits… 😉
As you can tell from the review, this is a very different Peirene book, leaving me to wonder what other readers will make of it. It’s all about the process of reading and where it can take you, a topic close to our hearts in these parts. Some, however (like the policeman), are not quite as convinced of the virtues of literature:
“…vous comprenez très bien ce que je veux dire et de quoi je parle… la lecture, la lecture!… c’est bien beau la lecture, mais elle n’est pas un alibi pour n’importe quoi…” (p.95)
“…you know full well what I mean and what I’m talking about… reading, reading!… reading’s very good and all, but it’s not an alibi for whatever you want…” ***
Which is where he’s mistaken. Marie-Constance knows only too well that when you start off reading, where you end up is a mystery waiting to be solved. I’m sure that’s something most of my readers can relate to, so why not pick up Reader for Hire and see where your reading takes you? 😉