Voice Over, page 1
Table of Contents
Céline Curiol’s first novel, Voice Over, written when the author was in her late twenties and published just after her thirtieth birthday in 2005, is a rare and unforgettable book, one of the most stirring literary debuts I’ve come across in recent years.
What distinguishes Curiol’s writing is its uncanny fluidity and masterful control over multiple stylistic effects. The reader is both inside and outside at the same time, immersed in the inner life of the central character and yet vividly aware of the world that surrounds her as she floats through an all-too-real present-day Paris, a city that presses down on her throughout the novel with all the force of a dream. The main thrust of the story concerns the adventures of this nameless young woman, but Curiol’s eye for detail is so sharp, so exact in its renderings of the world beyond her character’s skin, that even as the narrative concentrates on the actions of a single individual, we are simultaneously given a crystal-clear picture of French society at large—the new France, the France of the early twenty-first century. Much of the book’s mordant humor is lavished on the hypocrisy, irrationality, and outright absurdity of the social arrangements, class differences, and no-so-buried racism the heroine sees around her.
Voice Over is a story of obsession, alienation, and a descent into near madness. The central character, who works as a public address announcer at the Gare du Nord, falls for a man who is attached to another woman. Slowly and inexorably, something begins to happen between them—or almost. Such is the not so terribly complex plot of this deeply complex novel. Meanwhile, hundreds of events, both large and small, are recounted as Curiol’s damaged and poignant heroine goes about her life, which is filled with numerous random encounters with people as diverse as a female impersonator named Renée Risqué, a forlorn African immigrant, a photographer with the delicious name of Olivier Chedubarum, and an actress who happens to have the same name she does. Curiol’s prose moves with the emotions of her character, from the precise, clinical tone of an empirical observer to the opulent, disjointed streams of thought assaulting a mind in the grip of hallucinations. In one startling passage toward the end of the book, as the heroine rushes desperately from her apartment to catch a subway that will take her to the train station, her frantic state is beautifully matched by the frenzy of Curiol’s writing. “She puts on the clothes she finds on the floor, then her coat, slings the sports bag and her handbag over her shoulder, looks for her keys, hears objects dropping to the floor without knowing what they are, finds her keys on the kitchen table, battles with her feet and shoes to get the former into the latter, glimpses 8:15 somewhere, opens the door, locks the door, rushes down the stairs into the street, quick glance to the right, to the left, hesitates, searches her mind for the shortest route to the station, begins to run.” On the next page, as this race against time continues, we come to one of the most astonishing sentences in the novel: “Her métro pass isn’t in her bag, her métro pass is in her bag.” Thought is perfectly wedded to action here, and only a brilliant, daring artist would have the wit and courage to come up with such a formulation.
I admire this book for its grace and economy, for its vigor, compassion, and often humorous turns. Curiol pulls us into her narrative with the assurance of a veteran storyteller, and after only a few pages, we are already deep into the novel. Without the slightest shred of sentimentality, she explores the innermost crevices of her heroine’s soul to create a fully realized portrait of a human being—a person of manifold contradictions and impulses, a figure who embodies both the tragic and the comic in ways seldom seen in contemporary fiction.
Take note. A superb new writer lives among us.
Yes, it is rather an ambiguous voice and not always easy to follow, in its reasonings and decrees. But I follow it none the less, more or less, I follow it in this sense, that I do what it tells me. And I do not think there are many voices of which as much may be said. And I feel I shall follow it from this day forth, no matter what it commands. And when it ceases, leaving me in doubt and darkness, I shall wait for it to come back . . .
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
They have known each other for a long time. She has never quite been able to recall the moment when they met, the place, the precise day, whether she shook his hand or they kissed on the cheek. Nor has she ever thought to ask him. She does have a first memory, though. As she was climbing into her coat in the narrow hallway of an unkempt apartment, she had caught his look of distress. The woman he had flirted with all evening was refusing to leave with him. He was trying to persuade her with an insistent barrage of words, which fell to pieces in the face of the majestic creature. She thought the idea of being suddenly deprived of the object of his affections must have been more than he could bear just then. And seeing him this way, in love, had moved her. She had slipped between the two of them and said, I’m off. But he had not replied.
She still remembers his hair and his hands. In her mind, she retains a distinct image of their thickness and color, their size and shape. Because to touch these parts of him is perhaps what she most spontaneously desires, is what for her would open up the path to intimacy.
In the window of the wine shop, each bottle has been set at a slight angle to those on either side. No prices are marked on the labels; she decides to go in. In order to help her with her choice, the man behind the counter wants to know what dishes will be served at dinner. She doesn’t dare tell him that they won’t be eating, she fears he’ll take her for an alcoholic. I’ve been invited, I haven’t been told anything, she says, improvising an answer to counter the hint of reproach dawning in the man’s eyes. I’ll take some white and some red, I suppose, she adds by way of conclusion. He picks out three bottles; she accepts at once. He wraps them in shiny paper, sets them down vertically in a bag. Back outside, she walks along with the promising clink of glass in her arms.
She has sat down at a deserted outdoor café. From the heights of his elongated spine, an ashen-faced waiter takes her order while checking to see that nothing has changed on the terrace of his little domain. The espresso arrives with the bill. The coffee is cold and bitter. In spite of her exhaustion, she has no intention of missing the party: that would show she was unworthy of his friendship. No doubt one of the guests will have remembered to take along candles. It would be a shame if he had nothing to blow out, no wish to make, no icing to lick off the little plastic holders—he who is so keen on celebrating his birthday. Honoring a person’s arrival into the world has never seemed to make much sense to her, but in his case she can understand. What is a birthday? A mark on time to reduce it to human scale. The waiter is closing up the cash register, he wants his coins. The palm of his hand is a tracery of jumbled lines imprinted by hundreds of adroit, repeated actions everyday. All of a sudden, she has an urge to put something on it other than metal, perhaps her own hand.
Her apartment smells of varnish and incense. She takes the bottles out of the bag, lines them up on the kitchen table. A moment’s hesitation, and then she opens the bottle of white, pours herself a glass, and waits for the time when she will go to his house.
People are talking in groups around a chair or a sofa. There’s laughter, joking, merriment; everyone’s loosening up without too much trouble. The wash of conversations follows her from room to room, the voices modulating, bursting like giant bubbles against her ears. Already, her head is spinning. Someone asks if she’s seen the corkscrew. She shrugs her shoulders; the muscles in her jaw are a bit stiff. Drinks are handed to her; she’s made to clink glasses, to take sips. There are more
She has a drink on the sofa, next to a man she doesn’t know. She remembers vaguely the song and the clapping; it was Ange who’d remembered the candles. The man beside her is not moving a muscle. She presses gently against the arm that is flung out along her thigh. The man’s eyes blink—as for the rest of him, not a twitch. He’s beginning to worry her, staying frozen like that. I can tell I’ve made a big impression on you! The words slipped out. His face remains impassive. Aren’t you feeling well? Her question provokes no response. The man seems to have abandoned his body, a hollow shell of flaccid flesh, as if he had catapulted his spirit to a place where no one can dislodge it. His eyes see nothing, not even the spot on the wall in front of him, which he appears to be staring at. Only his nostrils continue to shudder. She notices that he is freshly shaven. A few hours earlier, he passed the blade of a razor over his cheeks, sketched out bands of smooth skin in the foamy whiteness. His skin is unlined, his lips are dark and chapped. Something to drink, you’ll feel better, no need to get so worked up, we can talk it over, there’s always an answer . . . She casts about for the words to shake him out of his lethargy, but all that comes are phrases warped by alcohol. How to guess the cause of the state he is in? Even depressed people don’t do that. She doesn’t do that, not that—imitating a dead body in that way, it’s enough to give you the creeps. She takes a sip of wine. No one else has noticed the lifeless body on the sofa. A man is wrestling open a bottle, a couple are kissing by the window, a woman patiently cadges a cigarette, a trio burst into laughter. No one is aware of anything other than the person he or she is speaking to. And so she wraps her fingers around the man’s unresisting fingers. She lifts his heavy hand and places it on her belly. For an indeterminate length of time, she keeps it there, its warm weight upon her.
From the far end of the room someone has spotted how she has borrowed her neighbour’s hand. When she pushes it away, the man still doesn’t react. She remains seated on the edge of the sofa, drinking from someone else’s plastic cup. Inside her, things begin to clash and shift, to become confused and, before long, unbearable. She can no longer fight back the need to cry. Preferring that no one find her in that state, she takes refuge in the kitchen. He is leaning against the refrigerator, talking to someone who is rinsing glasses at the sink. On seeing her come in, he says something that she doesn’t catch. She sees his mouth articulate the words, but the buzzing in her ears blocks out the sound. Don’t tell me you let the angel fly away? He looks baffled. She feels her eyes cloud over. Why did you let her go? The man by the sink leaves, clutching the wet glasses awkwardly between his fingers, saying, flying high, I’d say. Have you been crying? There’s a dead man on your sofa, and I’m making no impression on him. She wants to meet his gaze, but she can’t quite bring his eyes into focus. Here. He holds out a glass of water, and she wets her lips. And it is then that she loses control and glues her mouth to his. For a brief moment, she feels their tongues collide. She barely has time to realize they are having their first kiss when she catches sight of the angel and has to back away.
There isn’t a sound in the apartment. She is on the couch, the apathetic man has gone, it’s early afternoon. Around her are littered empty glasses and gorged ashtrays. In the toilet, she finds a Heineken bottle standing in a corner. The mess is even worse in the kitchen: ripped-open bags of chips, knocked-over plastic cups, a nauseating stink of beer; stains of every kind on the grey, tiled floor. Her head in a fog, she surveys the remains of the party: it looks as if people had a good time here but rushed off before she got a chance to join in. Clearing up would be a good idea, no doubt he’d thank her for it. She gathers the empty, discarded items and puts them into a large plastic bag, which she seals as tightly as possible. Crouching over the tiled floor, sponge in hand, she scrubs away at the stains, attacking the smallest ones with excessive vigor. And while trying to restore the tiles to their original color, it comes back to her: the kiss. She giggles, like a child delighted at a piece of mischief that has gone unpunished. She closes her eyes. She wants to remember details—the texture, the temperature, the thickness of his lips—but all that remains is the sensation: that of something warm and nourishing, solid almost, passing from the depths of her throat down into her chest. She wishes she could tell him how good that kiss had felt. Behind the closed door to the bedroom he is with Ange, asleep, his body wrapped around hers. Is the sensation of a kiss the same for Ange, the same for him with her? Whatever he makes of this impromptu coming together of lips, she had better not be there when the couple gets up. She breaks off her frantic scrubbing, puts on her coat and leaves.
The rue Charlot leads to the Boulevard du Temple. Music is floating down from a tinny portable radio set four or five yards above the pavement, on the edge of a construction scaffolding where three workmen—three Frenchmen of North African origin, as she has learnt to call them—are rhythmically striking the façade of a building with their tools. One of them spots her. He whistles, and she smiles. Hey, wait a second, he yells, during a pause in the song. She walks on, but her mind lags behind. She is waiting at the foot of the scaffolding, watching as the agile man lets himself down the metal poles. Straightening up before her, he pulls off his gloves, tells her his name. They go to a café or perhaps straight to a hotel. Make love like in that American film she had seen at the cinema, where the lead actress, throat bared, tugs down her singlet and murmurs, do me good. Her partner helps her off with her clothes, removes his own, positions himself behind her, penetrates her, and their two bodies start to pitch and toss violently. Several times they change position; she, moaning with pleasure, he, intent on his mission, not uttering the slightest sound, dignified male that he is. The film was called Monster’s Ball, and not Monster Balls as she’d called it when buying the tickets. Balls, the ticket clerk had pointed out, means testicles in English. She had felt ridiculous.
Saturday. A week has gone by with no news. It’s a bit odd, but she doesn’t want to call him. That would cast a strange light on their slip of the lips. On the phone, she wouldn’t know where to begin. There is nothing she wants to say in particular, except to ask him the question she asks herself. But do you ever examine the reasons for a kis