on Eléctrico W, a novel by Hervé Le Tellier (Other Press)

Hervé Le Tellier is a made member of the OuLiPo, that group of 21 writers, mostly French, whose efforts Daniel Levin Becker describes as “attempts to prove the hypothesis that the most arbitrary structural mandates can be the most creatively liberating.”

ElectricoCover.jpgBut Eléctrico W, the fourth of his books to be translated into English, isn’t erected on an OuLiPoesque “exercise in style.” Each of its nine chapters covers a day in Lisbon where narrator Vincent Balmer, a reporter, and the news photographer Antonio Flores have been dispatched to cover the trial of a serial killer. Also, each chapter is titled after and mainly concerns one of the novel’s main or supporting characters. A seemingly unradical approach for an OuLiPien.

In the “Prologue of Sorts,” Vincent says that he wrote the story in 1985 and has revised it “very little, to be honest – as I typed it up. I altered some turns of phrase because they no longer conveyed the exact feeling of the moment in which they were conceived.” He had decided to write the novel because “something unfamiliar had insinuated itself inside me.” But once the book was completed, “I didn’t feel like showing it to publishers.”

Why revive the memory and revise it “very little”? Because whatever insinuated itself in Balmer has taken up permanent residence. Eléctrico W is a playfully profound narrative about his undying obsession with obsession, told with a charming, thwarted desire for love and self-understanding. Le Tellier’s shrewd and wandering intelligence animates Balmer’s psyche – making Eléctrico W a strangely affecting story that toys with conventionality and compels the reader’s attention at all times while eluding its grasp with a comic flair.

LeTellier2.jpgAt the outset, Vincent and Antonio take adjoining rooms in a hotel suite. Antonio had grown up in Lisbon and has returned after a ten-year absence. Soon Antonio tells the story of the first time he saw a girl nicknamed Duck:

“Antonio Flores is eleven, he lives in the old Bairro Alto quarter … Every school day, Tonio races the Eléctrico W, which stops outside his house at 8:18 in the morning. Tonio had trouble getting up today, the 8:18 has already left and he’s waiting for the 8:24 … Several feet ahead of Tonio, the W rolls down the hill on its steel rails, making terrible metallic screeching sounds … The glowing sparks fade in the distance, the Eléctrico W is swallowed by the hubbub of the city, and Tonio hears some one behind him say, ‘Hey, you really run fast …” She is seven years old, maybe eight, big black eyes, a straight nose. She has long dark hair, neatly smoothed.”

Duck and Antonio become inseparable through their adolescence but are helplessly driven apart. The story of loss deeply resonates with Victor – as do the details of Antonio’s latest relations with Irene, a co-worker at their newspaper. In a tropical hothouse in Eduardo VII Park, they soon meet Aurora Oliveira, a nymphic artist and musician who claims to turn men into plants. Later, Vincent meets Manuela Friere, another occasion for sexual mishap.

The narrative traces their days in Lisbon as comically flavored by Vincent’s growing preoccupation with all things Antonio and his own frustration with women. Vincent begins to manipulate, lie, and stalk as he intrudes on Antonio’s life. In Vincent’s perspective, Antonio and the women of Lisbon seem to have mythic qualities as if they are tropes expressing the archetypes of his life:

ElectricoCoverFrench.jpg“A smile hovered on Antonio’s lips as he watched Aurora play. I realized how much I could loathe this man whose memory was anchored so far out and so deeply, who had been given the gift of existing so early on. If women were drawn to him, then it was because of this past that carried him, making him both lighter and more weighty, a force that told them there was an invisible secret in him, a mysterious ‘before’ that would never be accessible to them.”

Eléctrico W is a story about fascination from which the Vincent of the prologue is still unfreed. The genius of the novel is found in how it binds us to Vincent’s bondage, how it makes his guile, foolishness, and unknowingness sound so familiar.

In his essay “Smile,” the psychologist Adam Phillips writes, “We are only fascinated, Freud suggests, by something we have already lost. We are only fascinated by what is missing – by the past. Fascination is the exhilaration of a mourning that never gives up hope … Fascination is a defense against loss.” He goes on to say that men’s fascination with women is “a denial of their actual existence,” since it is not they but spectres that haunt. As for the women in the novel, Le Tellier allows them to suffer their own fascinations – or to speak out against the tyranny of fascination.

LeTellierColor.jpegThis is the utility of Vincent’s narrative discursions – his life-losses seep in from the far edge of the core plot. This includes his employment as a translator – and the works he translates, some included within the narrative. Le Tellier says, “When love arises between two beings who don’t exist, like the characters in novels, it is necessary to be absolutely precise and to compensate for their inexistence through the indisputable truth of the words that you use.” That “truth” is the mysterious verve of his sentences, an embodiment of character and mind that charges every anecdote and side trip with quirky relevance.

“It’s hard to believe that you can say anything new about love,” Le Tellier said in a 2011 interview. “All you can hope is to find a way of telling that is personal, original and true.” Eléctrico W meets his own high standards. About his coverage of the Pinheiro case, Vincent says, "I had hoped -- and the general public had hoped to an even greater extent -- there would be confessions, or better, revelations. Diabolical machinations for all to see ... But everything was still dark and vague, and I was almost ashamed of sending the newspaper my daily chatty report of this obscurity." Le Tellier's fiction, committed to expressing the actuality of experience, respects the staying power of obscurity.

[Published June 18, 2013. 176 pages, $14.95 original paperback. Other Press also published Le Tellier’s Enough About Love in 2011.]

“True stories deal with

“True stories deal with hunger, imaginary ones with love.”
― Raymond Queneau

Le Tellier seems to have

Le Tellier seems to have done both in ELECTRICO W.

Check out Becker too

Must recommend Dan Becker's book on the OuLiPo writers mentioned at the beginning of review above. Called Many Subtle Channels from Harvard U Press.


Thank you, JC. Here's my earlier piece on Daniel Becker's OuLiPo book. I agree, a wonderful read.


Euro-fiction & other fictions

Le Tellier is a visible and appreciated cultural figure in France and western Europe. He even is a host of a radio quiz show that deals with literary knowledge. Sort of like our NPR quiz shows, but not on news and not so glib. Smarter. It's great that Other Press publishes his stuff here and that other NY publishers bring out titles from Europe and elsewhere. But tell the truth: an American writing in Le Tellier's mode couldn't even get an agent here. Look at Other Press' other fiction titles by Americans. There's nothing that comes close to the looser and unconventional work of a Le Tellier. That goes for Knopf too. So when they publish Euro-novelists here, it's almost like a fetishism and a signal of hipness. But I'm going to order my copy of Electrico today. Highly recommend his Enough About Love also from Other Press.


"...fetishism and a signal of hipness." Well put, sir. Standards are the publishing houses' fault, the so-called purveyors of literature. (I do like FSG though.) I reckon that another problem is the reader's attention span. Who wants to be rewarded for their patience? They might miss the eye of their next text message. But if making an effort to read is also required...whoa. Maybe it isn't the time of the Preacher yet. Anyway, we write in spite of, not because of. The weight of better writing is always out there. It's not going to stop being written and read, is it?