Michel Déon - Although the novel is highly original and brilliantly crafted, its philosophical meanderings, pseudo-intellectual discoveries, and literary reflections mark it as a distinctively French piece that will not be embraced by American readers

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Michel Déon, Where are you dying tonight?, Trans. by Julian Evans, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

Many of the requisite ingredients for metafiction are here: the mysterious appearance of an orphaned boy at a middle - class lycee , speaking not a word of French, with "blond hair falling onto his shoulders like a young girl's," hailing, rumor has it, from Latvia, and for unknown reasons a protectorate of the State. The boy accepts the name Stanislaus; of a sudden, he masters a perfect Gallic tongue and grows up to scandalize and amaze his countrymen with novels and romans a clef about women of every stripe. His best friend from the lycee is his publisher and his brother-in-law, whose son serves as the book's narrator. Despite this postmodernist cast, the novel, published in France in 1981, neither rises above the conceits of fiction nor questions them, even though the narrative is obsessed with what is fiction, what is real. Instead, the reader is dragged through the narrator's excessive fawning upon the thoughts, works and boorish affairs of Stanislaus. Most incomprehensible, though, is why the narrator, who inherits the publishing house and the task of tending to Stanislaus's debatable genius, remains a cipher. Though at first readers may see obvious parallels with Nabokov's Pale Fire , they will shortly be disabused by Deon's leaden touch. - Publishers Weekly

HERE ARE YOU DYING TONIGHT? By Michel Deon. Translated by Julian Evans. (Atlantic Monthly, $16.95.) The death of the protagonist in too many modern novels leaves the reader merely eager to move on to the next book, but by the time Stanislas Beren departs from Michel Deon's ''Where Are You Dying Tonight?'' we have learned (and come to admire) so much about him that his end provokes real regret. In this highly literate novel, the French author's first work to be published in English, a young man of unknown origins arrives at a ''rather snobbish lycee'' in Paris, is taken up and ''civilized'' by a fellow student's well-to-do family and eventually becomes a celebrated novelist. The story, which begins in 1925 and ends in 1977, is a delicious merging of narrative passages with excerpts from Stanislas' writings (footnotes included) and flashbacks to the events of his life that inspired those writings, not to mention numerous references to actual books, poems, paintings and people. Stanislas marries his best friend's aunt Felicite, with whom for nearly 40 years he enjoys a perfectly complicitous understanding and mutual respect, although he has many liaisons and a couple of great loves along the way. The novel's citations of authors from Rimbaud to Maugham, descriptive phrases about paintings by artists from Giorgione to Picasso and mentions of real people from the period in which the book takes place are not only fun but also make one want to follow the Berens' trail through London and Paris to the art museums and trattorias of Venice. And the felicitous translation by Julian Evans never stumbles. - G. S. BOURDAIN

Where Are You Dying Tonight? is the first English translation from the works of Michel Deon, a member of the Academie Franc aise since 1978. A purported biography of the late Stanislas Beren, it portrays a man of letters who cultivates a mystique throughout a career spanning four decades. The biographer is the son of his best friend, Andre Garrett, whom Beren met when he was "really born," that is, upon setting foot in a Parisian school in 1925. Fate being kind, Garrett inherited a publishing house that he passed onto his son. And the rest is literary history. Fans of story-telling magicians such as Calvino, Borges and Nabokov will begin this novel with great anticipation. A fictional publisher writing a fictional biography of a fictional author who composes fictions! We have all the elements for a dazzling display of postmodern pyrotechnics. But page after page we are met with a rather conventional pastiche. The novel is strewn with journal entries, passages from Beren's novels, letters and even poems, all skillfully rendered in this fine translation. The biographer is aware that the relation between a writer's works and his experience is often elusive, but he is mainly concerned with clearing up truths about Beren's life. Deon has a far too pat, academic sense of the difference between life and literature to get down to some hard entertaining play. He seems to be at a loss as to where to find the fuse that might light up these explosive elements. At any rate, his narrator shows up without matches. Such a smug and fatuous man of letters served as a wonderful foil for Nabokov in Pale Fire, and it's a cause for deep regret that Deon did not similarly mine the full comic potential of his character's limitations. Where Are You Dying Tonight? is Evelyn Waugh's pun on Beren's greatest commercial success, a novel titled in English "Where are You Dining Tonight?" (Waugh's quip is the epigraph to the original French "Dejeuner de Soleil.") Beren meets Waugh in Hyde Park; Waugh produces his pun. Period. This lack of resonance is typical of the novel's many literary details, witty, well-researched yet one-dimensional. There is also unwitting damage: Beren's best-selling story of an old European rake's love affair with a much younger New England blond beauty was already told for laughs by Nabokov. After Lolita, it's impossible to read the following without howling: "She explored love with an enthusiasm whose innocence and purity still scare me when I think about it." YET BEREN is a dark multi-faceted character. Promiscuous, elusive, he plays the people in his life for patsies, including his devoted publisher (at least in this reader's opinion). "The only truth which mattered to him was his own," the biographer tells us. Beren may well have been insufferable, a demanding, devouring presence. We begin to suspect an entirely different version of this great writer's life. Escaping political turmoil in Serbia, he reaches France, marries rich (the narrator's aunt), has a burst of creativity in the '30s, but mostly writes rather vacuous society novels inspired by his sexual conquests. Even his dense biographer can't help but note: "I sometimes suspected in him a great weariness with the life he led ordinarily, with the whole social parade . . . even though he was so much at his ease in it that he would never give it up." Deon's talent is such that he makes us long for the unauthorized biography. Although Deon is no postmodernist, at his best he concocts inventive fictions for Veren. There is the intriguing "Countdown" in which a Sorbonne lecturer meets himself as an old man (what a fertile metaphor for a biographer, utterly wasted); "Cryptogram," a vicious intrigue of seduction in the spirit of "Dangerous Liaisons"; and the wonderful "L is for London," a collection of stories beginning with an inspired tale of an English banker so enamored of Giorgione's painting "The Tempest" that he becomes a character in it. Would that Deon had written any of these books! Deon is also a gifted miniaturist; the novel is studded with numerous vividly drawn minor characters. The best is Mario Mendosa, the Portuguese criminal and crime writer who produces several successful novels for the Crime Pays series that keeps Beren's artsy publisher in the black. Not only is this one of the best jokes in the book, it is also another example of how Deon fails to make full use of such potentially rich material. Where Are You Dying Tonight? is not all that it might have been, but it is entertaining and suggestive. Its promise makes us eagerly await further translations of this prolific writer's fiction. Dominic Di Bernardi regularly translates contemporary French fiction. - Dominic Di Bernardi

This excellent translation of Deon's Un dejeuner de soleil (1981) recounts the life of Stanislas Beren from adolescence to his accidental death in 1977. Beren is a somewhat eccentric novelist whose works are a fusion of reality and fiction. With its contemporary references and allusions, the novel itself contributes artfully to this interaction between fiction and reality (its title is that of Beren's last unpublished novel, destroyed by his own hand prior to his death). Although the novel is highly original and brilliantly crafted, its philosophical meanderings, pseudo-intellectual discoveries, and literary reflections mark it as a distinctively French piece that will not be embraced by American readers. - Anthony Caprio