Friendly Fire

Nelly Alard

Nelly Alard, author of Moment d’un couple and Le crieur de nuit

There are good arguments and bad ones, idle disputes about an author’s intentions you know you’ve lost from the beginning because your husband has been trained as a philosopher and worked as an editor. Then there’s the question of justice. Shouldn’t I score extra points for reading Moment d’un couple in French, while Bob read the English translation, Couple Mechanics, on his Kindle? We leave these questions for you to decide.

What follows is a reenactment of the battle I had hoped to win after Nadine Juton’s animated discussion with author Nelly Alard at the L’Alliance Française book club earlier this month, but Bob still considers himself le vainqueur. It’s no accident that the seductress in this novel about adultery is named Victoire.

L: When the novel opens, it’s 2003 and we find ourselves with Juliette, her two children, and her friend Flo at a park that many readers in our book group praised for being so Parisian. Interesting that Nelly pointed out that the 19e arrondissement has been mostly ignored in literature.

B: So what’s your beef?

L: Juliette receives a phone call from her husband in the first few pages of the book announcing that he is seeing someone. The problem, according to Olivier, is that when he told Victoire that he was going to a movie with his wife, she promptly had an epileptic fit. Then the talk begins. Why didn’t Juliette go nuts right away? I kept waiting for Chekhov’s gun to go off.

B: Whoa, stop right there. I think you’re responding like an Okie rather than a bobo in a gentrifying Parisian neighborhood. By the way, your fellow readers were mistaken, and Nelly was exactly right. The whole point of setting this novel in the 19e is that the characters’ lives are increasingly at odds with their own professed political ideals. But more about that later. Back to your outburst.

L: You’re being as analytical as the narrator. I wanted to strangle Olivier on her behalf, which speaks to the power of the novel. I was turning pages like a crazy person and talking out loud as I did. If anything, I became overinvolved.

B: But you were not far enough into Juliette’s head. Remember that her job is project manager at the fictional digital company Galatea.

L: So?

B: A project manager is the interface between upper management and engineers. Juliette’s job is to keep the trains running on time. So when she’s confronted with Olivier’s infidelity, she approaches it as a problem that can be solved if she just follows the right steps. Go back to the epigram. Nelly defines what a “couple” means in the discipline of mechanics. It’s two opposing forces that offset each other without moving forward.

L: I’m grudgingly starting to get your point.

B: And this is the very dynamic of the novel as a whole.

L: Nelly did say she was surprised to find it compared to Fatal Attraction, which never occurred to me. That’s a real misreading of her work.

B: Juliette describes herself as a Cartesian, which means that she sees everything in terms of physical particles and forces in nature — i.e., as an engineering problem. Juliette regards Olivier’s infidelity as  something she could fix if her mind would only triumph over matter.

L: Fine. But I’m definitely winning the next round. You hold that this book is pure satire.

B: I said it was satirical, but if you want to misrepresent me…

L: Nelly’s explanation at L’Alliance of why Juliette remains in the marriage, while Olivier equivocates and continues to see Victoire, was anything but satirical. Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t very comic moments.

B: You had to laugh out loud when Juliette asked Olivier to simply pick up the phone and tell Victoire that the affair was over — and Olivier says he can’t, because that would be rude. But laughter is not what I meant by satire. You have to understand Rousseau to know what I mean.

L: Tu exagères.

B: Rousseau distinguishes between amour de soi and amour propre. Amour de soi is simple selfishness. Amour propre is often translated into English as “vanity,” but it’s more than that. It is the understanding of self in terms of other people. This is what the novel is ultimately about. Juliette is aghast at the thought of herself as the betrayed wife in a French farce about adultery.

L: “Si banal. Tellement médiocre.”

B: Even the most significant events in her past — her abortion and the two sexual assaults she suffered — are filtered through Juliette’s sense of how she appears to other people. And this points back to the beginning, where Juliette and her upwardly mobile friends are constantly aware of what sets them apart from their neighbors in their gentrifying neighborhood, and forward to the end, where Victoire casts herself as a feminist victim to win political support.

L: One last question before we close this book. How do you think they’re going to manage the upcoming television series that Nelly referred to? They’ll have to figure out how to dramatize her very active interior life. She mentioned expanding the book by illuminating the other characters a bit more.

B: At L’Alliance, Nelly called the book “claustrophobic.” In fact, the English translation is more claustrophobic than the original French because three chapters from Olivier’s point of view were cut. It would certainly add to a television adaptation if we actually saw more of Victoire’s hysterical outbursts.

L: You didn’t win the satire thing. But can we be friends again?

B: Our opposing forces are what keep this couple in balance.

Nelly Alard’s Moment d’un couple won the Prix Interallié in 2013. She was the first woman to win the award in more than 20 years.

— Linda

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