Severe

severeWell, this is a book that will divide its audience! When I was first offered a copy of Severe for review and saw the cover with its high heels and whips and wads of banknotes, I thought it best to do some strenuous research first, to make sure it wasn’t a Fifty Shades bandwagon novel. And in fact, far from it, this is a very literary novel indeed. Its genesis is rather fascinating as it’s based on a true story. In 2009, Régis Jauffret covered a scandalous murder trial for Le Nouvel Observateur. One of the richest men in France, the banker Édouard Stern, had been found shot dead in his luxurious Geneva apartment wearing a full latex suit, and the accused was his mistress, Cécile Brossard. The novel Jauffret wrote was based on the facts of this case – the sadomasochistic extramarital sex, Brossard’s futile flight to Australia in the aftermath of the crime, and her jail sentence, but in a preface to the story he insists that the reader tread carefully – authors of fiction are known to lie while telling the truth. With this little sophism out of the way, he put together a novel that was astute enough to provoke the Stern family to seek an injunction against publication.

Straight off the bat, then, we’ve got ourselves an interesting question of ethics. Is it right to publish a novel based so closely on a crime that’s painful to those still living? Or is it preferable to cite the need for free speech, when the Stern family who are immensely wealthy, may want to cover up misdeeds and wrongdoing that are better out in the open? Is it possible that Jauffret, as an insightful writer, might simply hit on truths that go deeper than intended because he has followed the emotional logic of the crime and made an imaginative leap into the darkness beyond it?

In any case, this is not a novel to titillate or entertain. Beyond the hints and oblique references to a world of distinctly kinky practices, there is nothing here that would upset a maiden aunt (whom I always imagine to be made of pretty stern stuff anyway). The novel stays within the somewhat confused and chaotic thoughts of the (unnamed) mistress as she makes her getaway bid, seeking oblivion in champagne, pills and the neutral, comfortless zone of air travel, but unable to prevent her mind from roaming back over the events of her relationship. The novel is subtitled ‘a love story’, only it’s the love story of two deeply damaged people, and as such the love is damaged and disturbing. Our narrator is a woman with a background of desperate abuse, and so attachment inevitably goes hand in hand with hatred and aggression. She works part-time as a call girl until she hits the jackpot in her rich banker. She becomes his ‘sexual secretary’ providing all the personal services he requires, but falls in love with him too, a sort of unstable, insecure longing to be essential to him. She has a husband, but he’s a straw man in the background, willing to go along with anything she does to earn money.

And it’s the money that’s the sticking point. Our narrator has managed to get a million dollars out of her lover, who has thought twice about it and taken it back. The narrator knows that the money is the best representation of his love that she’ll ever own, and so her fury at being deprived of it shouldn’t be read as purely mercenary in our normal understanding of the term. In fact the narrative repeatedly asks us to rethink all sorts of normal definitions, prime among them the idea of ‘love’, which is not soft and cuddly here, but cold, harsh, bleak and violent. Equally we’re asked to reconsider the notions of ‘victim’ and ‘killer’ as well as that of ‘responsibility’. Our narrator is aware that her lover is in all sorts of trouble with the wrong kind of people, and that his life is in danger from a variety of directions, not least of which is death by his own hand.

I relieved him of a life that was as brilliant and dark as the finish on his coffin. It was a predator’s life, and his cynicism earned him the admiration of the financial press, swift to kneel before the crooks who lubricate their speculative capitalism, just as peasants used to kneel before their manure-producing pig. If victims were the ones being judged, they would often be given harsher sentences than their killers.’

Oh this is such a French novel. I read it in translation, but I’d be interested to know how much of it appears in the passive voice, the voice that American word processing programs will underline as a grammatical error (Strunk and White say firmly that it is important to know who is responsible at all times). In the dislocated, grieving, paranoid mind of the narrator, responsibility is a very moot point indeed. There’s inevitably a touch of the unreliable narrator here, as our narrator’s thought processes are under extreme strain and clearly not orthodox at the best of times. But what I found most impressive and also most alienating in the novel is its refusal to give us the conventional comfort of explanation. At the furthest outskirts of human behaviour, Jauffret is content to let the irrational, the incoherent and the inexplicable stand, just as they are. And that, I think, will offend readers a great deal more than any sadomasochistic practices. But it’s also the most ethical part of the story.

(I should add that it’s recently been made into a film entitled Une histoire d’amour.)

16 thoughts on “Severe

    • I doubt it, as this is a recent publication. I don’t know how close Jauffret stuck to the facts of the case, but I think he was pretty close. But still, this is definitely literature and not true crime.

  1. Jauffret is a specialist, he also wrote Claustria about the Fritzl case. We discussed the ethical issue about this last year http://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/the-novel-as-a-ragbag-or-can-you-write-fiction-about-anything
    Remember?
    Although I know he’s a talented writer, I won’t read him unless he manages to write stories coming out of his imagination instead of using such recent murder cases without regard for the relatives of the victim. A bit harsh but that’s how I feel.

    • I do remember you writing about Jauffret, although I didn’t follow the discussion to the end – thanks for linking to it. Well, there are plenty of books out there, and the great thing about reading is the absolute freedom it brings to pick up – and put down – whatever we want.

  2. I find your final comment fascinating. There is such a prevalent feeling that a book should tie up all the ends and not leave us feeling that we don’t know what happened and why. One of my book groups recently read Tim Winton’s novel, ‘The Riders’ which refuses to provide the answer the narrative arc appears to have been aiming for. There was a real split as to whether this was acceptable or not despite the fact that in real life it was very unlikely that the situation depicted would have come to any resolution.

    • How interesting! That sort of book is good for a group read, although it can be frustrating to reach an impasse between the camps. I would think this ties into the post you wrote the other day about whether books were oriented towards the end or not. It is such a complex topic.

      • As usual you’re completely on the button. I first met this book when I was writing a chapter about our need for a teleological experience when reading a novel.

  3. It does sound complex in so many ways, both in the nature of the novel itself and the moral question about whether it should be written. Great review and fascinating to read though the book isn’t my cup of tea.

    • I can quite believe it won’t be a lot of people’s cup of tea! But I do like the ideas that surround books – it’s my favourite thing to think about!🙂

  4. So glad it turned out to be it’s own very interesting and well done book rather than a 50 shades knock-off! I like books that don’t provide tidy endings though I know lots of people don’t. I was in a book group many years ago where I could pretty much predict how well the book would be liked by whether it was filled with ambiguity or tidy explanations. Will you be seeing the movie do you think?

    • Heh, I am not much of a movie-goer at the best of times, and when I do I prefer children’s movies to grown-up ones (less blood and gore, on the whole). So probably not.🙂 But you are so right about the ending thing – it is amazingly divisive.

  5. Am just reading The Master by Colm Toibin, a book about Henry James. He describes Henry James using a couple (Symonds) that his friend had told him about for a story. The friend thinks it is ‘dishonest, strange and somehow underhand, but Henry does not give a thought to those who recognized themselves’. Does writing about someone in the present have more moral issues than when they are dead?

    • First of all, I have to say I really want to read The Master. Which is itself, of course, a fictionalised account of a real life. Having spent a lot of time lately writing biographical pieces about authors, I have to say that so many draw directly from their own experience that huge swathes of fiction much be based in real life, it’s just that for the most part, we don’t know. I think the issue here is whether the author is making money on the back of other people’s suffering – and using a real case in place of his or her imagination. I think it boils down to personal feeling, really, as to whether this is wrong or not.

  6. I had to smile at your “Fifty Shades” reference. I had Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys on my desk. A colleague came into my office and said, “Oh, those books! They did a spoof about them on The Office!” I had to educate him. Unfortunately any book with both words “shades” and “gray” in the title is mistaken for that other stuff. Anyway, this sounds wonderfully (terribly?) interesting.

    • Heh! Too funny about your book – I quite agree that ‘shades’ and ‘grey’ are lost words to us now, probably for the rest of our generation. This book was indeed gripping, in an unpleasant but compelling way! Maybe that’s the definition of literature we’re missing – a book with the intention of conjuring up awkward and mixed emotions in the reader.

  7. You’re on a roll with reading these books about relationships! At first I thought this was a nonfiction book about the actual case, but the author could probably do more with the story by fictionalizing it. I sort of like untidy endings as they give you more to think about–and with a story like this, already so messy, it seems more natural. Much more like real life, which is rarely tidy!

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