Well, 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.)