Tuesday, February 2, 2021

NEW STUFF: The Readers' Room - Antoine Laurain

Antoine Laurain said in a recent interview on the Words with Writers website that he believes “…we need fairy tales not only for children, but for grown-ups too” and that “Novels have to be better than real life.” His most recent novel The Readers’ Room (2020), published in France as Le service des manuscrits, exemplifies both these beliefs. Additionally, Laurain also explores the power fiction has over real life. Is it possible for fiction to affect reality? Can fiction create reality from a story simply existing in a book?

Laurain has had a surreal experience with this himself. He reports that his prize-winning novel The President’s Hat (2012) was an example of fiction echoing reality without the author’s knowledge. A photographer told him that he owned Mitterrand’s hat. He told a story of how he was assigned to shoot photos of Mitterrand at a meeting in Provence back in the 80s. While on a smoke break away from the audience the photographer saw the president’s limousine and the door was open. The black hat was on the seat and just like Laurain’s protagonist the photographer was compelled to take the hat. He kept it for all those years. Laurain decided they would photograph the hat for the cover of his book. Prior to the photography session he looked inside the hat and there were the initials F.M. just as in his book.

In The Readers’ Room fictional events begin to replicate in real life. Sugar Flowers, a literary novel published to much acclaim, has been shortlisted for a nationally renowned French literary prize and is causing problems for the publisher because the mysteriously reclusive writer cannot be located. While the publisher tries to track down the author and get him (or her…the writer has the androgynous name of Camille Désencres and has never been seen by anyone) the novel’s action begins to take shape in real life. The story is of vengeful unnamed killer who murders several men by shooting them execution style with an old WW2 era German luger. When men are found murdered in exactly the same method as described in the novel, even down to the Nazi initials SS etched into the bullets, Violaine LePage, the director of manuscript services and the person responsible for finding the writer Désencres, comes under investigation by homicide detective Sophie Tanche.

While the book models itself on the conventions of detective fiction it is a phantasmagorical genre blending novel more concerned with identity, love and family secrets. Violaine is suffering from a crushed leg and PTSD after a horrific plane crash. She seeks help from her psychotherapist amusingly named Dr. Pierre Stein who helps her piece together the lapses in her erratic memory and reminds her of several behaviors and incidents that shock Violaine. As she undergoes her treatment she is alternately appalled and mystified by Stein’s revelations. Simultaneously she is still trying to find the elusive Camille Désencres. Oddly enough Violaine is convinced Camille is a woman. But why so sure of that one fact and unable to remember so much about herself?

The less known about the rest of this intriguing plot the more enjoyment the reader will gain from the multiple storylines. In its brief 176 pages Laurain has densely packed meaning and incident into his story. Violaine toils away at the mystery of the missing author while pondering the mystery of herself. Sophie Tanche and her policeman colleague trade theories about crime solving in both “real life” and the world of books. Maigret is brought up several times. And books and authors are, of course, discussed repeatedly. We even get a sampling of paragraphs from Sugar Flowers in which Laurain gets to experiment with style, syntax and poetic metaphor in the guise of “Camille Désencres”. I’m sure it was a challenge for translators Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce, and Polly Mackintosh to capture the flavor of a different writer in those three or four sections.

Antoine Laurain
photo © 2013, Marissa Bell Toffoli

The characters are as wildly imagined as the premise of the main story as well as the plot of the novel within the novel. From Beatrice, the elderly volunteer reader who manages to find true gems in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts to Edouard, the interior designer who comes to solve the problem of bookshelves in the readers’ room and in the process falls in love with Violaine everyone in the book is a unique individual. All of them are utterly believable despite all their quirks and idiosyncrasies which indeed make them all the more attractive and likeable.

It is rare for me these days to find works of contemporary fiction that are genuinely imaginative as uniquely original, that celebrate imagination, that are written first and foremost to transcend reality rather than to merely reflect it. “Novels have to be better than real life,” Laurain has said. A philosophy I fully agree with. And this novel is truly better than the reality we all are facing in this era of the pandemic. Treat yourself to something unique and refreshing and uplifting for a change. You so very much deserve it. And Laurain will be very happy to have gained another lifelong fan.


  1. wow. This sounds really interesting. Will be off the the local brick and mortar to track down a copy in the morning.

  2. When I saw the title, I was intrigued to see what you made of it, as I reviewed it last September when it came out. I have enjoyed a few by this author already. The President's Hat and The Red Notebook are my favourites. Alas this one did not go down well with me. I was somewhat polar opposite to you. The insertion of the detective/crime plot really didn't work for me, and I felt the book might have been better if it hadn't of been shoe horned in.

    1. A valid criticism, but I got a lot more out of it than just the murder mystery angel which admittedly is rather slight. I was more fascinated with the metafiction aspect and the idea that the book might actually be creating reality which I think was definitely one of the themes Laurain addressed. His books are entertaining, but they are deceptively profound, chockful of evocative ideas slyly presented and discussed pithily.

  3. “Novels have to be better than real life”

    That's something that all novelists should repeat to themselves every time they sit down to write.

  4. Well this is another book on my list, between you and Christopher Fowler I've read some wonderful books I never would have found. Cheers, Wayne.

    1. Just read his first novel published in France back in 2007. Was only recently translated into English as The Portrait. I think I liked it even more! It’s about an obsessive antiques collector who discovers an 18th century pastel portrait of an unnamed man by an unknown artist. The face of the man is his own! Delightful and whimsical and a little sad at times. I’m planning to read all his books this year but have to pace myself. They're very quick reads as the books are so short (but densely packed and vivid) and I'm sure I might easily read his entire output in one month. Instead, I think I’ll read just one a month until I’ve gone though the remaining five novels.