Emmanuelle Pagano - In this fiction of yous and mes, of hims and hers, Pagano choreographs the objects, gestures, places, and persons through which love is made real


Emmanuelle Pagano, Trysting, Trans. by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, And Other Stories & Two Lines Press, 2016.

Third up for 2016 is the remarkable Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, which we’re describing as Edouard Levé meets Marguerite Duras. In over 100 fragments, author Emmanuelle Pagano recounts a shocking range of romantic incidents that reveal the wide-ranging, remarkable—and utterly strange—forms that love can take. A book that shows you that each and every love is unique, but also resembles all the others.

Grains of sand, bridges, shampoo, a bike, board games, yoga, sellotape, birds, balloons, tattoos, wandering hands, tweezers, maths, fish, letterboxes, puppets, a vacuum cleaner, a ball of string – and love.
In this fiction of yous and mes, of hims and hers, Pagano choreographs the objects, gestures, places, and persons through which love is made real.

Trysting is a mirror shattered in play: inscribed on each bright shard of glass, a fable about a fragment of love.’ - Joanna Walsh

‘Polyphonic, arboreal, rhizomatic, desperate, stunning.’ - Lauren Elkin

‘The interactions of men and women, infinitely varied and minutely scrutinised, are Emmanuelle Pagano’s central concern here. No oddity or anomaly of behaviour is too slight to escape her notice, but the effect is less forensic than boundlessly compassionate and wise. She is a prose poet worthy to stand with the great exponents of the genre.’ - Christopher Reid

‘A bold, experimental book of cohering fragments, full of intimately-spoken truths about desire, about love, and about their aftermaths. It is like having strangers whisper their secrets into our minds.’ P- atrick McGuinness

‘Subtle and moving, the fragments of life presented in Trysting question the relationships between love, sex and gender, making the everyday strange and the strange everyday’ Juliet Jacques

‘Trysting is an album of destinies. They each have their décor. They talk of first frosts, of the wood that must be brought in, of the huge rubbish tips of life, of the disorder of houses. Of beds that are no longer made because they are too often occupied. Of the warmth of being at home and of finding oneself. This essential truth of what we are. Emmanuelle Pagano sends every reader back to familiar territory. Her book is full of discreet and recognisable emotion.’ - Xavier Houssin

‘Understated and devilishly talented, Pagano follows her amorous quest, made up of stand-out sketches, scathing little stories, confessions and analyses, all shared between voices.’ - Thierry Clermont

‘Trysting reveals what only literature can: the basic irrationality, the arbitrary enchantment, but also the residual grace within the feeling of love. A multitude of anonymous male and female characters show us the ways we are seduced by each other: a scent, a movement, a way of being, a way of making love.’ - Alexandre Gefen

‘Though she insists on brevity, Pagano never abandons complexity and holds fast to the animal sensuality that forms the bedrock of every couple’s relationship.’ - Clementine Goldszal

‘Familiar but never banal. Without a trace of performance, full of shared confidences, it has an incredible delicacy.’ - Olivia de Lamberterie

A series of tender little love bites, running the length and depth of all connotations and permutations that the word “love” contains.
Pagano’s English-translation debut collects, in a torrent of brief vignettes, many lifetimes' worth of heartbreaks, secret moments, reminiscences, betrayals, fantasies, voyeurisms, and disappointments, all deftly translated in Higgins and Lewis' full and limber prose. Following in the epigrammatic path laid by Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines, this book is hardly less varied for casting its gaze on a single, messy corner of our experiential universe. In this way, it conjures the spirit of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, dealing in life’s ardent undertows, which, in some form or degree, are nearly as inescapable a part of the human experience as the ends that befell the residents of Masters’ “The Hill.” Pagano delights and surprises with uncanny observations, each sounding a small point of emotional truth, like a well-aimed pebble pinging off a windowpane. Take for example, these complete entries: “She was only with me to have somewhere to write to, an addressee,” and “Life with him is so easy and sweet and joyful. I have a feeling he’s cheating.” You may find yourself laughing out loud in recognition or looking up and around an empty room, wondering if any number of these compact scenes had somehow been lifted straight from your own private journal—or the hidden folds of your memory. Delicate and poignant, the book abounds with the ups, downs, and stagnations of the subject of focus itself. Because of the imposed constraints of the form, the commitment to the episodic and angling toward aphorism, the book expends no energy on overall forward movement, and so some may find this collection better suited for intermittent rather than sustained reading.
A sweet and bitter onslaught of love and desire, found and glimpsed, held and lost. - Kirkus Reviews

In Trysting, translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, Emmanuelle Pagano arranges poetic vignettes into an elaborate mosaic about love. Each shard, stretching from a few words to the length of a page or so, captures a penetrating moment. We are given love’s beginnings, endings and the many deeply personal stopping points on the journey. A man sees a high-heeled woman who has stumbled in the snow, “head held high … soaking wet all down the back of her coat”, and offers her his arm. Another tells how he packed his lover’s suitcase when she left him: “I wanted to. It was what I’d always done.” A woman reveals “our bedtime ritual ... for ten years now, every evening” she plucks the hairs from her husband’s back. Many passages are extremely sensuous, brimming with the touch, smell and taste of love – “I moistened her all over with saliva to get to know her off by heart.” The profusion of snippets, with no main protagonist or overarching plot, makes it a difficult book to read cover to cover; instead, Pagano has created a beautiful treasury of amorous moments. - Emily Rhodes

“How do I love thee?”
What does it mean to love, to be loved? How do we begin to love, why this person and not another? Why do we abandon our loves, betray the ones to whom we have declared our undying devotion? Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting offers insights into the many questions that surround the strange and ever-mysterious workings of our love lives. Boldly wading into waters that have preoccupied poets down the centuries, Pagano gives us a collection of vignettes, short stories, prose poems and one-liners that together form a kaleidoscopic representation of love and lovers in all their multifarious manifestations. Occasionally lyrical, sometimes banal, by turns humorous and heart-breaking, Trysting holds up a mirror to the glories, peculiarities and absurdities of the human heart and its workings.
When I picked up this slim volume and began to read, I must confess I felt some disappointment as I turned the first few pages. I was hoping to plunge into the “novel” promised by the blurb on the back cover. I soon realised however that the lover scratching his stubble and caressing the narrator’s cheek on the opening page would not reappear. There would be no narrative arc, no ongoing interplay of characters, no twists and turns of plot to contemplate in the small hours of the night. Instead, lovers appear on the page – ringing a doorbell, selling calendars, collecting feathers, banging into furniture in a flat that seems too small, chasing storms or scattering rubber bands around the house – only to vanish almost as soon as they have taken shape. Every tale is told in the first person, and with each new narrator, we must start afresh. The reader is left with a feeling, a glimpse of the mysterious alchemy that has taken place between two individuals, that moment or place of trysting promised to us by the book’s title. I adjusted my expectations and understood that this is a book to savour in odd moments, to read and ponder as the occasion arises. I began to read it as I would a book of poetry.
What then emerged from the pages was a dazzling catalogue of amorous encounters in which lovers come together and find their way to an intimate understanding of each other’s oddities. No detail is too strange or too trivial for Pagano’s lovers’ attentions, from toe-nails, shedding hair and other such bodily detritus, to tics and quirks: a lover who chews on bits of wood, another who insists on salting his loved one’s food for her. Lovers are changed, transformed by their attachments: a woman speaks of a seismic shift taking place in her body, a rearranging of all the senses provoked by the loved one’s attentions, another of the aching jaw that results from laughing so much together, the tightening of the skin provoked by happiness.
There is no shortage of eroticism or bodily functions in these pages. One lover declares: Sometimes I want her so much that my legs wobble; another: I used to sniff her all the time. I moistened her all over with saliva to get to know her off by heart. There is the lover’s special smell, her intimate, bedroom smell, her smell mixed with mine, and an adolescent besotted with an older cousin, glorying in the forbidden delight of squeezing spots and pustules on the adored one’s back. A casual encounter leaves a lover in a state of unrequited longing and permanent desire. There are whiskers and nose-hairs, liver spots and blemishes that come with age: Time is pollinating his skin with flowers, with speckles, with stars. The less glamorous aspects of love and intimacy are fully embraced in all their messy splendour, cataloguing the intimate topography of the lovers’ lives.
We read of partings, betrayals, death, desertions and callous abandonment. There is obsessive behaviour, outright stalking, and the sense of disorientation the lover is left with when an all-consuming affair has come to an end. And there is music running through the pages: we hear it with the lover who listens only to the loved one’s fingers drumming on the fret board of the guitar and not the notes produced by the instrument, or as the lover’s skin likened to the skin of a drum, vibrating and resonating at the slightest touch. And of course, there is much tenderness, the warm intimacy of bodies locked in embrace, the lover’s gaze: No one sees what I see when I look at her. The gaze that effaces imperfections, joins up the dotted lines of fragmented experience and allows the man of parts to come together in his lover’s arms.
All of this is beautifully translated in a seamless collaboration by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis. Pagano’s prose has a luminosity in the original French that could so easily have been lost in too prosaic a translation, but this English rendering bridges the gap between the two languages and successfully conveys the full range of voices and registers that make up this beguiling collection of intimate snapshots. - Aneesa Abbas Higgins

I often think the most inventive books over recent years I have read have come to from French and her is another example. Emmanuell Pagno studied fine arts and then film studies and then became a teacher whilst in 2002 publishing her first novel she has so far written twelve books and has won the EU literature prize for her book The adolescents troglodytes. This is her first book to be translated to English.
I never used to feel at home in her apartment because it was so dirty. I’m very particular, and I don’t like there to be even a speck of dust around the house. she never washed her clothes, just kept wearing the same old things. She didn’t have a washing machine and seemed to know nothing of laundrettes.she never washed the floor or the bathroom or the toilet. Just sometimes she would sweep the kitchen, leaving the pile of dust pushed into a corner. I used to wait untill she was out and then do a spot of cleaning , because she got angry if i did so much as look at a sponge in her presence. I brought a vacuum cleaner over in secret. After a few weeks the apartment had started to look very different and she noticed. She threw me out, along with  all the cleaning products I had hidden behind the rubbish bin under the sink.
I loved this I thought of Myself I was very cluttered when I met Amanda not as bad as here, but this has a saki like humour as well.
Well how to describe this book that is the problem , it is utterly brilliant but hard to describe it is like a pice of art in a way. An art piece of love a collage of pieces of love . those piece of love we all think are captured here there are small glimpse into unknown lives by just the way we look , feel , smell, act and grow together. Then we have the flip side those thing in love that are just strange such as photographing some ones toe clippings is that love or obsession that is a line that pushed . Other place there is sexual underpinnings in the piece like a wife taking her other halves  saxophone and damping its mouthpiece before playing it.
He wraps presents like no one else. Perfect parcels, for christmas or birthdays, neatly taped up, the paper smoothed by the assiduous flat of his hand, with ta fold positioned two-thirds of the way along the top side, as if he were ironing a crease into a shirt. That fold is his signature
don’t we all know when our other half has wrapped our gifts in a pile of gifts?
these vignettes are like forgotten postcards to what we love , i follow a twitter account that has old postcards and what was written on them and this is like that almost some one went to the wall in Verona with the love notes and taken them down and edited to there is no identity to the writer other than the essence of love that drop of words that is love , obsession and sex . I said this is like a piece of art it is like Tracy Enim piece her bed for example said a lot about her and her life or the piece everyone I have ever slept with , this is a cut up of love lives with the names places and people removed . This is one of those books that a few weeks you have read it you will go back and check that or this was said in it a wonderful collection of vignettes on love. - winstonsdad

Language fails as a means to define love; the sentiment is too great, too felt to be held in words. The French author Emmanuelle Pagano’s first book to be translated into English, Trysting, manages to convey the emotion indirectly, definition via fiction. The simplicity of its English title belies the strangeness of the original French, Nouons-nous. Reviewing the various definitions for nouer and trysting, some current, some obsolete, some very specific (the final of six definitions for “tryst” in the Oxford English Dictionary is: An appointed gathering for buying and selling; a market or fair, esp. for cattle) it became clear that Pagano’s achievement is contained within the combined definitions of the two titles. To tryst means to meet at a designated place and time (surprisingly, the OED gives no mention of love or lover). Nouer is a bit more complicated, but en bref it means to tie up, to knot, and the reflexive form means to establish, engage, take shape, begin. Roughly, I read nouons-nous as something like knotting ourselves. Pagano’s book is a series of episodes, whether a brief glance or many years, that reveal the myriad ways love occurs. As two people are brought together, there’s a connection, a start, a moment’s knot. Some of the passages underscore one particular aspect of a relationship and are only as brief as a sentence, while others, running a couple of pages, bring together a wider array of themes. There are no names, often no genders, no ages. Just two people, crossing paths.
Above all the book bears the stamp of emotional truth; there exists no single way to capture or experience love or its loss. There is sweetness, intimacy, humor, pain, loss, suffering, violence, ephemeral unique things that only occur because two particular people intersect at a specific moment in time. The moment of love is a tryst, the formation of a knot.
To read through the slim volume, is to find all your own memories of different relationships coming to mind—ones that you’ve experienced, ones that you’ve witnessed, ones that you could imagine coming to pass. This resonance speaks to how universal many of the trysts actually are; a fair number, for example, center around sharing a bed. Even as the feelings Pagano’s characters experience in this space—intimacy, thrill, boredom, tedium, violence—verge on the particular, they are familiar; to be awake while your bedfellow sleeps unaware of you is so common as to be almost mundane. “I watch him sleeping and feel very far away during these long nights of insomnia. I gaze at him, so calm, wrapped up in the bedding. I’m completely alone next to this sleeping man.” The bed is the closest space to share with a partner, yet even here loneliness exists, and insensitivities can speak magnitudes. “I can’t stand it anymore, this being dragged awake at night that he puts me through, when I’ve fallen into a deep sleep and he comes to bed after me, loud and lumbering, not bothering to check if I’m already asleep.” In the multiplicity of these scenes, Trysting seems to insist love is created, made, and lost in bed.
The bedtime passages demonstrate in part one of the central themes running through the book—those things that we feel and notice about our partner but refuse to say out loud, those sentiments that Pagano shares only with the reader and that we share with no one at all in our own lives. “With him I always felt pleasure without showing it. I wouldn’t fake it—on the contrary—I’d hide my orgasms from him.” Another episode fixates on the dishonesties in a relationship, raising that question of how well we can ever know the person we are with: “So I lie to her. I need her in order to become the man I must become, but I’m not sure I love her . . . I would like her to teach me not to lie anymore, but if I stop lying, I’ll no longer be able to tell her I love her.” Even when an occasional one-liner reads as a platitude that can almost go without saying because so many people have had this same thought, its underlying truth shows precisely why Pagano included it. “No one sees what I see when I look at her.” Not even you, reader.
There is the way love appears to the outside world, the way that same love exists for the beloved, and the way that love exists only within the lover’s thoughts. As it appears to the outside world, there is a passage towards the end of the book that is abrupt and pointed, “I wonder if, when they hear the banging that seems to be coming from our apartment, our neighbors think he’s doing some renovations, even late at night, or if they hear me too, whimpering and begging him to stop.” Pagano at once brings us into this darkest part of the intimacy in this couple and at the same time shines a light on the rest of the world, and the reader wonders along with the narrator, do the neighbors really think nothing is wrong or is this a willful blind eye? Another take on love in the public’s eye that comes a little later:
He isn’t very relaxed in groups, and at the slightest hint of emotion, he stutters. He stutters saying my name, and I love it. I think he’s noticed, so he does it a lot, calls out to me, says my name. When we’re alone he never stutters, but as soon as we’re out in public, having a drink with friends, he turns to me on the slightest pretext, multiplying my name in his mouth.
Other passages encompass an entire life and touch on several themes, several truths. A few I read without thinking twice, some made me chuckle with their frank humor and others shocked me in their uncanny similarity to my own experience. I laughed out loud at a particular few that brought back immediate memories and feelings of adolescent angst (the fraught nerves of speaking to your crush on the phone!). At the same time, Pagano’s sections on age and aging, at once connected to and distinct from the theme of time’s passage, are subtly moving. One of the stories that struck me the most is the following:
In the beginning, as a timid newcomer, I allowed myself to fall into the arms he held out to me. I had only moved into the retirement home under pressure from my children. I felt lost and betrayed. He was there, he comforted me, he offered me the solace of a love story at an age when I thought I had forgotten everything about love. When I found my bearings, he left. I’d forgotten nothing about love; it hurts as much as ever. He moved on to a resident who is starting to show signs of dementia and has trouble remembering things. One of the nurses told me to stop crying. She said it wasn’t worth it. She has known him for years, and he only latches on to women who are disoriented. He wants them to need him. When they recover a bit, like you, he leaves them. It shows you’re doing better.
The narrator’s age has not changed her feelings: “I’d forgotten nothing about love; it hurts as much as ever.” Age collapses love here—at first it might be joyful, but the familiarity is that of pain. I also noted that the language of the elderly narrator’s conversation with the nurse is resonant of many I’ve had with friends in our twenties and thirties. Is the truism of plus ça change one to fear or to accept?
This passage is a cousin to one about a person in an intensive care unit after some kind of accident. The nurse here ignores all requests to call the patient’s wife and instead takes the patient’s hand: “The young woman’s hand wasn’t helping me or calming me down . . . The hand held mine without hurting me and without comforting me.” The whole passage runs maybe half a page, and we are in a confused fog, the patient’s own pain causing us ever more worry, until its final lines hit: “And suddenly that hand drew away and was replaced by a different one. This hand was rough and wrinkled. I squeezed it hard. It was old, twisted by years of work, by life, all this life of ours.” The passage is recast; we are relieved from what we’ve just read, allowed to see the power in a gesture, the restorative strength offered by the love of a life that has been fully lived together.
Many passages highlight sweetness, joy, and the other positive facets of love. But a thread of loss, heartbreak and difficult recovery runs through. And while Trysting may be about how to love, Pagano is also examining how to live. Life lived tied to other people, life lived when that comes undone. One speaker’s life comes apart when his girlfriend leaves him: “My basic functions were abandoning me, just as she had; I didn’t have the strength to cry, or even enough water in me for tears. When tears, hunger, thirst, and digestion returned, I realized that I was alive and that living, filling my belly, getting things moving, getting dirty, would help me forget her.” It seems obvious but the experience of love’s arrival and departure is quite literally lived through, there’s no way but through. In another episode, the speaker has an indescribable oppression that is “just a little too persistent. I have to live with it, since I don’t live with him anymore.”
Love can be cruel and tortuous; misleading in that it promises the most but will also leave you and cause you the deepest suffering. Sometimes even while it is present:
Our bodies, our house, our things, everything had to be beautiful. Otherwise, he would say, we can’t go on. He found me fat, dowdy, and brash, brash in how I dressed and the way I spoke. I was ugly and tacky. Because I loved him, I lost fifteen kilos, let him choose my clothes, and above all, I took to living in silence, afraid that with my noise, my everyday noise, the noise of my life, I would annoy him. He thought I was vulgar in spite of everything. I would have liked to shout, to really test the limits of our bodies and our voices; I would have liked to shout, play, take pleasure. I thought that’s what living was about.
Notwithstanding the impossibility of such an act, Trysting attempts to translate emotion into words, and Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis have reenacted this endeavor by translating these words from Pagano’s language to ours. Translation, fittingly, is directly addressed by a translator in love with the writer whose work she translates:
I’ll never dare tell him how I feel . . . And yet I am en tête-à-tête with him almost constantly, when I’m working on his books. I’m in his head, in his language, in his sentences. One day I bumped into his wife, we even had a chat, and I realized that she doesn’t know him as well as I do, I who spend my time probing his most intimate thoughts and examining his every word as I translate his books into French.
To translate a feeling to a written expression and make an emotion literal, physical, to give it form—this is what Pagano succeeds in doing, giving shape to the inexpressible, the fleeting thing felt but never said out loud. Her book is remarkable in its refusal to be limited to the revelatory or the shocking or the surprising. Some of the fragments wander a little—they don’t go off course in terms of theme or subject matter, but they lean to the fantastical, or fable-like, and these feel a step out of place. I didn’t love the final passage of a woman observing a man drawing a tree who attracts all manner of songbird, but it did bring me back to the beginning of the book, the sounds that you hear with someone: “I wake up, and I can hear the sound of little creatures walking around on an invisible cloth stretched tight next to my ear, stretched between me and him.”
I cannot pretend I did not finish working on this review until after the election. And, after the death of Leonard Cohen—news that I received on a bus to Boston, and that brought me to tears. Feeling broken of spirit and of heart, this book review suddenly felt silly. But, as I found various constructive avenues for my nervous energy, I kept thinking about this slim volume—what it means to write and read about love between people, in all its forms, in a time of its glaring absence. I have no great conclusion to offer, but have noted every single act of kindness between strangers over the past days, which are not unlike these trysts—brief, but poignant. Pagano has given us a way in to a feeling that is beyond words, and yet we all know what it is when we have it, and know what it is to be bereft of it. Words matter, and it is no small miracle that Pagano’s offer a safe harbor. - Lauren Goldenberg

Trysting is one of those rare books that defy description it in any sort of a review.  At its core, Pagano’s book presents us with a series of writings in various lengths that deal with the human experience of love.   Her musings in this book range from short, one line epigrams to longer two page narratives that read like flash fiction.  Pagano attempts to capture all of the stages that being in love and having a lover encompass—meeting someone special for the first time, spending time together, learning the habits of another person, breaking up, getting over a lover.  She intersperses within these events things that lovers leave behind like feathers, rubber bands, a bicycle.  Some of the vignettes are shocking, some are tender and sweet.  But at their core, they all try to delineate the mysterious and illusive sensation of love.  Senses—touch, site, smell, sound, taste are all described within the context of love.
The shorter pieces, which are only a line or two, read like epigrams and feel as though Pagano is trying to capture a moment in time between lovers.  They read like a caption on a photograph:
“He sprays a mist of water onto his newspaper to stop the pages rustling as he reads next to me while I sleep.”
“His breathing, even during the day, even when he’s busy doing something, is like that of a person asleep.  Regular and calm.  I like this peace.”
“No one sees what I see when I look at her.”
“He has a serene way of being in silent moments.  I was never afraid of having nothing to say to him.”
The longer pieces, which range from two to three pages in length, read like flash fiction stories and provide a frame for which the reader can fill in the rest of the picture.  In one story, for instance, a couple moves from apartment to apartment, like vagabonds constantly on the move living in different places.  The couple pretends to be interested in renting an apartment and gets the key from the estate agent and spends as much time as they can get away with at each rental: “The estate agents never notice a thing, nor do the landlords.  We make love in their apartments, we sleep in them, we live our shared life in them and it’s as good a life as any.  We change location, move to a different town, everyday.”
In another story, a musician who plays the saxophone is always annoying his upstairs neighbor even though he uses a mute for his instrument.  She leaves him terse little notes and knocks on his door whenever he is practicing.  The only noise he ever hears from her apartment is the dull sound of her squeaking bed when her boyfriend stays over:  “They always screw to the same rhythm, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s definitely screwing, not making love, because it’s always the same dogged, dreary, binary rhythm.”  The musician wants to invite the woman to his apartment and get to know her and introduce her to a whole new world of rhythm: “I’ll tell her to let herself go, be carried by my breath, by my sax, my mouth, my lips, my melody.”
One final aspect I want to mention that is integral to the writings in this collection is their sensual nature.  Pagano manages to represent all the senses and put them in the context of lovers:
Touch: “It was very cold.  I hadn’t put gloves on.  I defrosted my fingers between my thighs before letting them touch her.”
Sound: “I met him when I called a wrong number.  His voice was so lovely, saying I must have made a mistake, that I couldn’t bring myself to hang up.”
Smell: “I used to sniff her all the time.  Odours are always stronger when they’re damp.  Perfumers dampen thin strips of paper to sample their scents.  Dampening an area, an object, or a body helps us to smell it and get to know it fully.  I moistened her all over with saliva to get to know her off by heart.”
Hearing: “The things I miss most are the sounds, the sounds of our love, the noises of lovemaking and sleeping together, the noises of waking up.”
Sight:  “We are getting old.  I like the signs of ageing on him, the wrinkles and folds, the emergence of moles and liver spots.  I wonder if these marks appear all of a sudden or little by little.  I look out for signs of these blossomings.  Tine is pollinating his skin with flowers, with speckles with stars.”
This book is a truly unique literary experience that can be read like a collection of poetry, slowly, a little bit at a time when one has quiet and the mood strikes. - thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/10/23/review-trysting-by-emmanuelle-pagano/

While reading Trysting by Emanuelle Pagano, something troubled me. Not the prose (which is lovely and beautifully translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis) and certainly not the content. The subject matter of Trysting is often troubling, but I'm an adult and as such, am capable of dissecting complicated material and realizing that relationships are complicated and often unhealthy. I can read challenging material—and Trysting is often challenging—without internalizing trauma. No, the content is justified and forever relevant.
What bothered me was the title itself. Translated from the French, Trysting doesn't seem to address the meat of the book in any particular way. Nouons-Nous, the original French title, seems to be a sort of idiom, one that doesn't make a lot of sense when imported to English (as often happens with idioms). Roughly speaking—let the record show that the reviewer speaks poor Spanish, minimal German, and scant Japanese—Nouons-Nous would translate to "are establishing us." In English, it doesn't quite scan. Perhaps, Establishing Us?
This might seem like quibbling, but it is important, because Trysting is a scattershot book of hundreds of tiny vignettes, encompassing everything from initial encounters to literal trysting, to the dissolution of love, to rape and violence, to unrequited, seen-from-across-the-way romanticism. "Nouons-Nous" drills down to the bedrock of the establishment of us. It's a broad topic that can and does encompass infinite arrays of interpretation. To boil that down to "trysting" seems to downplay the struggle and minimize it. Of course, that may be the point, part of the construction.
What Pagano has constructed here, using sentence-, paragraph-, or page-long vignettes is not a narrative as such. There are no names, no specific characters, no given locations that function as landmarks for the reader. Those coming in with expectations of a story are going to be disappointed. However, what is found within Trysting is no less affecting for its non-linear structure. Although Pagano isn't telling a story, she is telling a theme, telling a tone, telling a part of life that resists too-particular expression. And she's exploring this aspect of life through humor, pathos, through chilling detail and through whimsy.
The vignettes are spaced in such a way as to keep the reader guessing which direction is up. Pagano never quite allows the pieces to fall into order, which would allow the reader to become complacent. Instead, she will pair a lovely description of intimacy, "I love it when he goes around naked in my house. It's as if he lived here," with a simple line of chilling matter-of-factness, "Desire for her made me stronger, a good deal stronger than her." That these vignettes are on opposing pages, offset by a simple description of a cup of coffee and a divorce, illustrates what's inside the pages of Trysting.
Not that everything within is heavy or meant to elicit anything beyond a smile. Segments of Trysting are intended to evoke laughter. Because what happens between two people can be a joyous, miraculous relationship.
He was inaccessible, taken up with his work, his friends, his social life. He never looked at me . . . I waited until he left for a few days over Christmas and I moved into his apartment. I knew where he hid the key. I unpacked and put everything away, leaving no hint of my recent arrival . . . I divided the walk-in closet into two, I mixed our books together . . . I was cooking when he came in . . . When he asked who I was, I acted surprised, indignant, laughing it off . . . He sees me, he looks at me, he touches me, and he's getting used to me.
Of course, even though Pagano judiciously sprinkles levity through her work, there are passages that rend the heart. Divorce, unrequited love, simple dissolution and, of course, death, dwell inside of Trysting. That the words are lyrical and poetic does little to soften the ache when reading the passages that focus on what happens when "us" becomes "me."
I went to the clinic to catch his soul and bring it back home. I had string with me to lead it. A great big ball of thick string. I went up to him, embraced him one last time, rested my lips on already cold eyelids, then took his wrist and tied the string to it, as I had seen my grandmother do with my grandfather's wrist in the local hospital. Then, from this bracelet, I unrolled the ball across the room, down the corridors of the clinic, and out to the courtyard where a taxi was waiting for me. I ignored the looks and questions. I held on to the string through the open car window; he followed me the whole way. I talked to him, telling him to come with me, to come back home. I asked the driver to drive very smoothly so that the string wouldn't get broken. I got out without letting go of the ball, which was almost all gone now, and went into the house. I continued unwinding it all the way into our room, right into the bed. I put the end of the string to bed between our sheets.
How Pagano manages to convey painful truth into lovely, simple prose is a marvel. There's so much beauty in Pagano's words, even translated from her mother tongue to English. The translation work is so seamless that it reads as if it could have been originally written in English. Perhaps it's the sentiment at work. There's something about love, romance, lust, passion, anger, even obsession, that lends itself to thick prose that feels like hands can be run through it. Pagano's translators, perhaps because they're working with such a rich topic, translate fully and evocatively. At no point does Trysting slow down or hold anything back. It's a tapestry of prose throughout.
Pagano won the EU Prize for Literature in 2012 for her novel, Les Adolescents troglodytes and it wouldn't be surprising if she wins another prize for Trysting. It's a lovely, challenging book that delves into a challenging topic in an intriguing, unusual way. How else to explore how to become us than by giving the reader hundreds of "Us-es" and asking them to identify themselves within? - Michael B. Tager

Born in 1969 in the Aveyron region of southern France, Emmanuelle Pagano studied fine art and the aesthetics of cinema. She now lives and works on the Ardèche plateau. She has written more than a dozen works of fiction, and in France is primarily published by P.O.L. She has won the EU Prize for Literature and her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She regularly collaborates with artists working in other disciplines such as dance, cinema, photography, illustration, fine art and music.