I have, on occasion, kept rooms in pubs ‘entertained’ by reading from a book grabbed from bookcases provided by thoughtful publicans, so this taut, short novel about a man who reads aloud to fellow passengers on his morning commute short sections of literature retrieved randomly from the throat of the book pulping machine in his workplace, had instant appeal.
A little old now (published in French in 2014, and in this English translation in 2015), Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s first novel (although the author is already an international prize-winner for his short stories and this is, in reality, a novella) is likely to be the choice of many book clubs and thus needs little by way introduction. Ultimately a romance, and which calls to mind aspects of the whimsy and the gentle good humour both of Amelie, Gregory’s Girl and Sliding Doors, The Reader on the 6.27 is likely on the surface to appeal or to repel readers on that basis.
It does, nevertheless, remain absolutely its own work and there are occasional dark elements to the theme and to the plotting which absolutely defy a categorisation of ‘romance’. Guylain and Julie, the two lead characters who are both searching for something and who fall into each other’s lives by fate, are both strongly drawn while the minor characters in the cast might be bit-part players in the story but all enjoy the luxury of Diderlaurent’s attention to detail which brings them to a fully-drawn 3D life. This includes The Thing, the massive beast which pulps the books where Guylain works and whose relationship with it is a strong feature of the development of the work. Even the goldfish – who shares a name with the author of what became La Marseillaise – also provides an interesting comment on the continuity of la Republique. The scenes – short chapters all and many of them short stories in their own right – offer colour, drama and poignancy and are also superbly sketched and located (including where Julie’s aunt gets her weekly fix of chouquettes). Diderlaurent has a very light touch and the ending is both well-judged and finely tuned to the novel’s theme of the predominance of fate and in how ordinary people lead their lives.
In the circumstances, it would be churlish to wonder how a lover of literature finds himself working in a book pulping plant, which is only making him more unhappy than he already is; and how an intelligent woman finds herself in a career as an attendant in a shopping centre lavatory but who is clearly able to overcome the unhappiness of such an existence. We know little of the backstory of either – and neither, essentially, do we need to given the theme. We may each of us find ourselves in inexplicably lonely situations or in workplaces in which choice is sometimes little evident or the product of paths created from previous decisions, and that lends reality to Diderlaurent’s wry, clever observations on modern life/work and modern (workplace) relationships. And I think it would also be churlish to criticise a slightly haphazard sense of timing with regard to the readings of the extracts.
And, in closing, a word for a generally first-rate translation by Ros Schwartz (and also Ruth Diver) which has a rhythm and a flow which allow the story’s love of words to breathe. A highly-experienced and rated translater, Schwartz has done the author a great service which is illustrative of the resources which the publisher has committed to it. A book which is, ultimately, about the love of words and whose story is so well crafted demands a great translation, as well as a print run on appropriately high-quality paper, and this one has both.