Julia Deck - both an engrossing murder mystery and a gripping exploration of madness, a narrative that tests the shifting boundaries of language and the self. For inspiration, Deck read Samuel Beckett, because, “he positions himself within chaos and gives it coherence”
Julia Deck, Viviane: A Novel, The New Press, 2014.
Les Éditions de Minuit, publisher of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, rarely publishes a debut novel. Jean Echenoz, current star of this revered French literary house and enthusiastic fan of Julia Deck, confesses that he didn’t send his first novel to Minuit because the publisher is “too demanding…too good for me.” Yet thirty years later, a first novel published by Minuit has gripped French readers and taken the literary world by storm.
Viviane is both an engrossing murder mystery and a gripping exploration of madness, a narrative that tests the shifting boundaries of language and the self. For inspiration, Deck read the work of another Minuit star, Samuel Beckett, because, as she says, “he positions himself within chaos and gives it coherence.” This breakthrough novel, nominated for the Prix Femina, the Prix France Inter, and the Prix du Premier Roman, is sure to become a contemporary classic. Linda Coverdale, one of the most celebrated French translators working today, has created a faithful and propulsive English text that has been revised and approved by the author.
Nominated for the Prix Femina and the Prix du Premier Roman for a first novel
Winner of an inaugural French Voices Award
On the surface, Viviane Élisabeth Fauville appears unassuming: she is 42 years old, recently separated from her husband, and on maternity leave from her PR job at a Paris concrete company. In Deck’s debut, originally published by France’s prestigious Les ditions de Minuit (which seldom publishes first novels), Deck presents a protagonist who, although she blends into the commuter-clogged Metro cars and sidewalks of contemporary Paris, is struggling to make sense of her implication in her psychoanalyst’s murder. The novel filters this gruesome event through Viviane, an unreliable narrator who thinks she sees her deceased mother on sidewalks and in taxis. Meanwhile, the novel shifts from second-, to third-, to first-person, to first-person-plural narration (“There’s this child on our hands and we wonder how it happened”), suggesting that Viviane suffers from a split personality disorder. All this seems proof enough that Viviane is as guilty as she is unstable. But Deck resists closing the case, and this ambiguity, along with certain narrative techniques, like opening two consecutive chapters with almost identical sentences, create uncertainty in the reader. Deck’s novel, which was widely lauded in France, complimented by Coverdale’s unobtrusive translation, burrows deftly and unrelentingly into a troubled mind - Publishers Weekly
"Written with a delirious and intimate urgency, Julia Deck's debut novel, Viviane, is a remarkable and troubling portrait of murder and madness. Bravo!"—Lily Tuck, author of The News from Paraguay
"Viviane is a work of extraordinary passion, intelligence, and style. A beautifully controlled wild ride of a novel that will thrill readers to the point of vertigo."—Sigrid Nunez, author of A Feather on the Breath of God
"Julia Deck . . . astonishes us with the tension between her limpid, polished style and the protean complexity of her narrative."—Le Magazine Littéraire
"Julia Deck now belongs to the most exclusive and prestigious family of French literature. . . .In the current literary landscape, her novel stands out and on its own."—Le Nouvel Observateur
"[A] masterfully conceived debut, a relentless tale, intricately and irresistibly told."—La Quinzaine Littéraire
This debut by a French novelist puts a mystery inside a narrative puzzle.
An epigram from Samuel Beckett introduces this slim novel about the titular protagonist and occasional narrator, a 42-year-old woman who recently gave birth to her first child. She suffers from severe panic attacks and receives medication. Within the narrative, Viviane is more often referred to as “you,” though sometimes as “I” or “we,” and occasionally she refers to herself as “Elisabeth.” Viviane is plainly mad, which means “you” are as well, as “you” (the reader) attempt to discern the motivation behind the crime that the protagonist may (or may not) have committed. “[T]hat’s just what she wants, to bring some order to her memory,” says the narrative at a point where Viviane has become “she.” “Instead of coming to light, however, events are retreating ever deeper into darkness.” This much is relatively clear: Viviane’s husband has separated from her, perhaps because of a younger woman, perhaps because Viviane is crazy, perhaps because the marriage was a mistake from the beginning. Or perhaps all of the preceding. She feels that younger women are a threat to her in the workplace as well as in her marriage: “You know that you’re not twenty anymore and that young women are lying in ambush, ready to take your place and wring your neck.” Affairs abound in the novel, generally between older men and younger women, complicating the plot and adding to intrigue on various levels. At one point, a man who may or may not be having one of these affairs is described (presumably by Viviane) as “either really handsome or absolutely not.” The plot’s mystery resolves itself in surprising fashion, but mysteries of language, consciousness, identity and perspective remain impenetrable.
At one point, even the baby is “trying to solve the mystery of causes and consequences,” which puzzled readers will immediately find relatable. - Kirkus Reviews
Like most people in publishing—or most readers I know—I have approximately a hundred million books on my “to read” shelves. Which in no way stops me from buying more and more books, or, in this case, setting aside everything I “should” be reading to check out a book that won’t be available until April of next year.
The sort of cryptic, yet promising opening of the jacket copy first caught my attention:
Viviane is both an engrossing murder mystery and a gripping exploration of madness, a narrative that tests the shifting boundaries of language and the self. For inspiration, author Julia Deck read the work of Samuel Beckett, because, as she says, “he positions himself within chaos and gives it coherence.”
But it’s this line from the second paragraph that convinced me that I should read this right now:
You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.
Writing in the second-person is tough to pull off, but that sentence is basically perfect.
Aside from that, I don’t know too much more about this book. It’s published by Minuit—which is surprising, since they don’t often publish debut novels—and will be coming out New Press next year in Linda Coverdale’s translation. And it was nominated for the Prix Femina, the Prix France Inter, and the Prix du Premier Roman, three of France’s ten thousand literary awards.
Also of importance: This is a slim 149 pages, which is the perfect length for me to read tonight, seeing that most of the rest of my weekend will be consumed with baseball watching . . . I’ll let you know on Monday if it’s as good as Wacha’s postseason. - Chad W. Post
Viviane centers on the character of Viviane Élisabeth Fauville, and just to make that as clear as possible the narrative begins in the second person, the 'you' of the story being said Viviane. She is forty-two and a new mother, her daughter just a few months old; she has also just separated from her husband after "two years of conjugal misery". She has been seeing a psychoanalyst twice a week for a while now, too -- and he wants to add another session a week (one can see why, soon enough ...) -- but:
on Monday, November 15 -- yesterday -- you killed your psychoanalyst. You did not kill him symbolically, the way one sometimes ends up killing the father. You killed him with a Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Profection santoku knife.The second-person voice, putting the reader in the place of this apparent killer, has its appeal and power: it makes for great immediacy, much more so than even a first-person confessional would. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Viviane is obviously somewhat (or possibly very ...) unbalanced. She was already seeing a psychoanalyst twice a week, but the additional strain of new motherhood and separation from her husband (even if there wasn't much left to that marriage anyway) obviously weighs on her too. And there's the fact that she seems to have some lingering mommy-issues of her own: her mother is dead (though she doesn't always see it quite that way) and, for example, Viviane has hung on to her mother's old apartment, neither using, nor selling, nor renting it out.
The narrative -- in which the second-person voice dominates, but which does switch occasionally to first or third person singular, too -- both follows Viviane as she recreates/reimagines what has happened and what happens to her in the days after her psychoanalyst's death. There is a police investigation, and she is repeatedly questioned. There is also a fairly detailed description of her going through the motions that 15 November, explaining just how she got the knife (a wedding present from mom ...) and how she covered her tracks. But how reliable is she as a not-quite-narrator (seen mainly as 'you', not 'I') ?
While capable of precise and careful planning -- including always dealing with the infant, which, after all, needs close and almost constant attention -- Viviane is also a mess, her mental state very fragile. But whether she's become, or revealed herself as a full-blown psychopath or something different is going on is long teased out as an open question as the novel and the investigation progress.
The temptation in fiction to fall back on alcohol- or drug-induced hazes that blur reality -- or, as in this case, take advantage of a mentally unbalanced character to similarly play with what might be real and what might not be -- is always dangerous. Deck handles her protagonist quite well, most of the way, but it's hard to see this sort of thing through both convincingly and satisfyingly. Enough of the writing in Viviane is stylish, and there's enough suspense, to make for a fairly compelling read, but for those of us with little patience for mentally unbalanced perspectives the unfolding story soon veers into enervating territory. Anything goes if you unmoor you character sufficiently -- and Viviane seems pretty nuts, quite a bit of the time -- and what's the fun in that ? (While the use of the second-person voice is effective it also exacerbates this underlying problem: as the novel progresses, it becomes much more difficult for the reader to continue to identify with this unbalanced 'you'.)
A lot of Viviane impresses. There's some very good writing here, and the voice is, for long stretches, a striking one. There's also decent mystery-suspense surrounding the the murder. Presumably, arguably, the story only 'works' in this form because of the protagonist's fragile/unbalanced mental state; nevertheless, that is also the novel's greatest flaw. Despite working to ground the text and character -- another advantage of the second- over the first-person voice -- too much relies on Viviane's disconnect with reality. So too it's disappointing (but hardly surprising) that the novel's closing words find Viviane: "in more and more of a daze".
Deck means of course to revel in and use her protagonist's daze, but it's a literary game that few are equipped to play well; Deck is good, but she's not nearly that good. "For inspiration, Deck read the work of Samuel Beckett", the jacket copy of the US edition tells us, and the epigraph is from Beckett, too; would that authors had more faith in their own abilities and didn't try so hard to emulate and imitate. Fortunately, at least, Viviane doesn't feel too derivative -- but too bad Deck didn't have the confidence to go entirely her own way. Less daze would certainly have helped. - M.A.Orthofer