Lovers or Something Like It

by JDP

All of France is raving about Florian Zeller; after reading through his searing and insightful Lovers, I think I’m duty-bound to lend my consenting voice.

Florian Zeller / French / 2003 / 147 pages
Translated from the French by Sue Dyson

More or less as a rule, I don’t give into fads, especially when it comes to literature. The Life of Pi may be a great book, but I’ll never read it unless the buzz dies down a bit. I avoid “Opera’s Book Club” stickers like the plague and I’ve never once purchased an edition of a novel with a film adaptation poster cast as its cover. I’m also exceedingly leery of fielding literary recommendations from individuals I don’t know very well. A good suggestion requires more than a handshake. To this end, I’ve always treated staff recommendation plaques at bookstores with some trepidation. Maybe these people know more about literature than I do, but at least I know more about myself than they do.

Sometimes I see a staff recommendation for The Life of Pi and I know that the universe is having its way with me.

But here I am in Cardiff looking to kill a bit of time and I walk into a Waterstone (which, I gather, at least from my appraisal of its fiction section, is a slightly highbrow British version of Borders) for some book perusing. I am immediately confronted by an entire wall of front-faced novels appearing under the heading “Bert’s Recommendations.” There are about 75 novels on this wall, each with its own placard extolling the virtues Bert believes it to possess. Of the books that I’ve read on this wall, I find myself agreeing uniformly with Bert’s capsule reviews. For a handful of minutes, I stand aghast, dumbstruck at Bert’s well-readedness and our somewhat similar tastes. Then, rubbing my hands together in eager anticipation, I systematically pore over every volume he’s recommended.

It is during this process that I am introduced to Lovers or Something Like It by the French wunderkind Florian Zeller.

Zeller’s biography is fascinating: at 25 years of age he was a successful and critically praised novelist, playwright, literary talk show host, and lecturer at a premier university in Paris. He was once hailed France’s most popular 25-year-old which, given the fact that he’s not a reality television star, a footballer, a lingerie model, or a film director, is saying, I would think, quite a lot. He seems to be the sort of well-rounded public intellectual that America is no longer producing. Even more, the fact that Zeller was so thoroughly developed in these capacities in his mid-20s is incredible to me. I don’t know much of the world, but I hazard the guess that Paris is one of the few places on the globe where things like this still happen. (And please, before we go any further here, let me point out that I have no love affair with the French.)

Lovers is a short, incisive novel that explores the nature of a romantic relationship between two people in Paris: Tristan, a nearing-30-year-old successful professional, and Amélie, a much younger and substantially more fragile elementary school teacher. As it turns out, Tristan is a topflight cad and Amélie is too weak-willed and dependent to extricate herself from the relationship. Zeller adopts a very distant, first-person omniscient narrator who deals with Tristan somewhat harshly (justifiably so) and Amélie much more delicately (though, perhaps, too kindly). The relationship itself, laced with Tristan’s infidelity and Amélie’s psychosomatic pains, is about as dysfunctional as you can conceive.

But this sort of thing is trite. Lovers earns high marks less for its substance than for its treatment. Zeller writes in short, 2- and 3-page chapters that almost always feature at least one sentence that is beautiful and memorable. Indeed, while not necessarily as creative in his vocabulary as a John Banville or as arresting in his imagery as a Bruno Schulz, Zeller seems consistently adept at pairing the correct words with the correct insight. In a way, he reminds me of a hipper and less intellectually rigorous Emerson. His narrative timeline shifts back and forth a bit and certain events are told and retold from different angles. There is a distinct likeness to Kundera here in that the prose seems airy, the space light, and the deeper philosophical ideas always popping their heads above the surface.

One of the attributes of the novel that really caught my attention was Zeller’s investigation into this dysfunctional relationship as a particular (though representative) manifestation of what my generation is coping with more broadly. With marriage and domestic life no longer a central driving force behind our ambitions, it is, quite simply, difficult to meet another person who might be amenable to sustained romantic involvement. Pair this with the realization that the pickings just aren’t of a high quality to begin with (I mean, really, does bar trivia on Thursday night, house party on Friday night, dance clubs on Saturday night, and Sunday football actually breed a population worth taking any interest in?) and what you find is that most people you know are content to jump hook, line, and sinker at any romantic commitment that comes their way. If it’s rough, keep your head down; we’re all in the same boat. Most men are idiots and most women have no idea what it is they’re looking for.

I was skeptical of this novel. For all the reasons articulated earlier, I shouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I did. But Lovers is a powerful punch that boasts some rather wise insights and very solid prose. It also clocks in at a scant 147 sparsely populated pages so, you know, you should go check out what Bert was getting at.

Rating: 9 / 10

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