Most of my reviews for this year’s Women in Translation Month have looked at books by authors I hadn’t previously encountered, and while that throws up the possibility of finding new favorite writers, unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Today’s post is on a book that I really didn’t get on with, a short, confessional work that will certainly find appreciative readers – I’m just not one of them. I wonder if any of you out there will enjoy it more…
Maude Veilleux’s Prague (translated by Aleshia Jensen and Aimee Wall, review copy courtesy of QC Fiction) is a novella told by a woman at a turning point in her life. The first pages detail the sexual encounters she has with Sébastien, one of the employees at the bookstore she manages, but despite her married status, this isn’t exactly an affair:
Barely a year and a half into our marriage, we’d decided, each of us, to look elsewhere. We had no doubts about our love. Extramarital sex couldn’t tarnish it. We were devoted to each other.
p.12 (QC Fiction, 2019)
Her husband, Guillaume, knows about her sessions with other men (and women) and is happy for her to go elsewhere, provided that certain ground rules are kept, such as not staying overnight with her lovers when he’s in town.
Inevitably, though, things become messier, and the narrator soon finds herself falling for Sébastien, wanting to spend more time with him and in the process neglecting her husband. As much as she tries to tell herself that it’s just a phase, and that Guillaume’s the one she wants to be with, she eventually has to face up to the fact that she might be deluding herself. It’ll take some time away from both men to figure out what she wants to do, and who she really wants to be with.
It’s an interesting premise, and there are times when Prague appeals, with the description of the narrator’s downward spiral nicely done. The confidence of the early pages, that of a woman in control of her destiny, and her emotions, gradually gives way to confusion and despair as she realises that this time is different, that she can’t just walk away and laugh about it with her husband. To her own surprise, she becomes attached, demanding even, and when Guillaume becomes concerned about their marriage, she doesn’t know how to respond.
To complicate matters, the two men in her life must also compete with a third complex relationship, namely the narrator’s struggles with her writing. Desperate to complete a novel, she begins to suspect that her initial intentions were off the mark:
The book was going to be about an open marriage, but it was turning into something else. It ended up being about I don’t know quite what anymore. About the torment of no longer loving someone who’d saved me, who could make me happy, who loved me, whom I loved. About no longer loving that person and loving someone else, someone imperfect, a stranger. No longer loving the man I wanted to love forever. Or dare I write it: no longer loving the man I had wanted to love forever. (pp.57/8)
In truth, the book is her way out, and more important than either of the men in her life, who seem to exist more to fuel the woman’s fiction than to provide a partner.
I’m sure many of you will be thinking that Prague sounds great, and wondering why I was so negative about it in my intoduction – I admit that on the surface it’s an interesting set-up. However, it never really grabbed me, and I was happy enough to speed through it (it’s not a book that will take you long to read). The writing wasn’t really to my liking with its short sentences and many brief sections, and while the blurb praises the “stark, spare prose“, I found it fairly bland and forgettable.
I can’t say I was overly taken with what happened in the novel, either. Yes, there’s a lot going on, especially if you’re impressed by frequent mentions of drink, drugs, multiple sexual partners, choking and bondage, but once the novelty wears off (which is pretty quickly), it’s all rather dull and repetitive. This might be the point, with the narrator seeking a different path after becoming jaded by her current life, but I’m not sure the reader’s supposed to share her boredom to that extent.
Another aspect of the book I found a little off-putting is that it comes across as a bit too clever-clever and try hard. I wasn’t a fan of the constant name-dropping of music, books and writers, including several mentions of a certain Claire Legendre, who – according to Veilleux’s French-language Wikipedia page – is, or was, her uni supervisor. It all comes across as self-indulgent, culminating in the discussions of autofiction near the end of the book:
Lies are a device often used in fiction. (p.88)
Here, the narrator is finally admitting that she’s being less than honest with her story – by this point, I’m not sure I care.
Of course, if this all sounds interesting (and I’m sure many readers will be intrigued by my comments), feel free to try Prague yourself. QC have published some excellent books over the last few years, but this one is definitely my least favourite so far, and is best summed up by the narrator herself:
The height of narcissism. To make a novel of yourself. (p.77)
That’s how I felt about Prague – let me know what you make of it…