on Life Is Short and Desire Endless, a novel by Patrick Lapeyre, tr. by Adriana Hunter (Other Press)

It’s been said that the English laugh at money, the French laugh at sex, and the Germans laugh at indigestion. Long desires teach long vexations and the submission to comic candor. Americans laugh at liberty and taking liberties (the danger, satisfaction, or illusion of). The Chinese laugh at dynasty and destiny. At least their poets do.

LepeyreCover.jpgIn France, comedy is called une maladie du regard, an outlook dooming you to perceive the ridiculous in human affairs. It’s a prevailing attitude of French cinema, several titles of which are casually mentioned in Life Is Short and Desire Endless, the first of Patrick Lapeyre’s seven novels to be translated for English-speaking readers. The novel won the 2010 Prix Femina, a major literary prize awarded by an exclusive female jury which apparently highly approved of Lapeyre’s portrayal of la maladie.

The characters: Louis Blériot-Ringuet, late-30’s, is an unenterprising translator of medical and scientific texts. His wife of 10 years, Sabine, early 40’s, got pregnant and aborted (“he wanted the child with all his might and, with all of hers, she didn’t”). Sabine manages contemporary art collections for foundations. The unnamed narrator says, “Blériot doesn’t know when they started growing apart. The day he noticed, it had already happened. From then on all he could do was watch, powerless to stop it, as their whole life became poisoned. He saw their relationship crumbling from one day to the next and did nothing, found no better way of coping with it than feebly accepting the state of affairs.”

LapeyreColor.jpegTone is dominant in Life Is Short and Desire Endless. The narrator doesn’t tell the story so much as he (?) resigns himself to the fateful predictability of it. He contributes his own take on marriage: “Couples – theirs, at least – look rather like incoherent organizations when, in fact, they’re an alliance between clearly understood vested interests … by dint of which people can become increasingly indifferent to each other or increasingly inseparable.” From the very first pages, the range of the characters’ responses is set for good. Lapeyre thus intentionally narrows his playbook’s field and invites the obvious risks. There is no analytical impulse, or rather, there is the lingering, tired odor of its absence as if it had been tried and discarded.

Next comes Nora Neville, Blériot’s lover. As the novel opens, Blériot receives a call on his cell phone from Nora who has been out of touch for two years. Lapeyre doesn’t describe his characters -- he sizes them up with swift strokes, compressing psyches into habits. In a sentence that must have pleased the Prix jury, the narrator says, “At some stage all men probably need a story like this of their own, to convince them that something wonderful and unforgettable happened to them once in their lives.” But the women don’t get off so easily. Here’s a sentence that puts Sabine in place: “She loathes confidences about as much as she does reminiscing.” One starts to feel grateful even for such a tersely intriguing discrimination.

LapeyreBW.jpegNora circulates within a circle of lovers. But primarily there is Blériot and the market trader Murphy Blomdale (“one hundred percent American, both austere and hyperactive”), based in London, along with whom we meet his business colleagues, all treated with disinterest. Nora chunnels between Paris and London; the lovers go to restaurants, they sit around hotel rooms or apartments and drink too much wine. Lapeyre wants us to peer closely at the comic staleness of these trysting relationships – the waste and habituation. The narrative arc behaves more like a flattish, low-altitude, hot-air balloon ride than an ascent. But Lapeyre keeps things moving, offering side trips to Blériot’s parents’ house – the mother is slipping into dementia, the father is helpless. There is also Blériot’s gay, empathic, and sickly friend Léonard who serves to pry open his straight friend. Nora pries euros and pounds out of her lovers; Blériot borrows from his parents and Léonard. There is also Murphy's acquaintance Vicky Laumett, a former lover of Nora who consoles him when his lover has disappeared.

Lapeyre refuses all along to court the reader – not with sexual frisson or the promise of character development or by relieving his singular tone. Of course, the cast is headed for a fall. Lapeyre won’t make them lovably flawed. Then why do we follow them? It must be because their fecklessness is familiar. How surprising, then, to be shaken near the end of the novel. I'll say simply that the finale is worth the trip.

LapeyreCoverFrench.jpegThe characters’ complaints are typified by lines like these: “Murphy sometimes wishes someone could explain to him what sort of moral perversion makes us persuade ourselves that somebody who loves us automatically has inalienable rights over us.” But this is exactly what prods the reader: we grant the narrator the right over us, we accept the state of things and a fateful recognition of the ridiculous.

Life Is Short and Desire Endless infects the reader with la maladie -- though sometimes it seems that Lapeyre lets the bland fever go on too long. He wants the surface to be as attractive as cinema while disavowing the narrative’s old tendency toward depth. The goal is to create the lassitude and sudden leaps of the one who chases desperately and rather blindly after beauty – and to suggest the cost as time passes and youth fades. "Nora's always aroused dreams of a Jules and Jim type of solidarity around her," says Vicky. There’s something very midcentury-Francofilmic about Lapeyre's novel -- but cooled by embittered wisdom. Eh bien.

[Published June 19, 2012. 337 pages, $16.95 paperback original]

Re Hot-Air Balloons

La vie est breve
Et le desir sans fin-
Autrement mis en arriere
En face d’un prison dure
Meme plus que la nuit.