Sunday, December 28, 2014

La Délicatesse

La délicatesseLa délicatesse by David Foenkinos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In David Foenkinos's La délicatesse, the beautiful and enigmatic Nathalie becomes a widow after her husband's sudden death. From thereon impenetrable, she coolly deflects the sexual advances of Charles, her boss, and channels her grief into her work. Yet the unexpected happens when Nathalie - out of the blue - kisses her Swedish colleague Markus on the lips. Although the kiss is merely "un acte gratuit" (an unwarranted act) to Nathalie, Markus - old, balding, single, awkward and unlucky with the ladies - is overwhelmed, stupified and approaches her. Between them, a friendship forms and finally develops into 'something more' that is both unlikely and lovely.

The theme of chance, as evidenced by le baiser gratuit (the unwarranted kiss), runs throughout the novel. The idea of coincidence determining destiny is also clear in one of the most-cited extracts from La délicatesse, the scene in which Nathalie and her husband go on their first date:
"Le jus d'abricot, c'est parfait. Si elle choisit ça, je l'épouse... -
Je vais prendre un jus... Un jus d'abricot, répondit Nathalie. Il la regarda comme si elle était une effraction de la réalité.
It is because Foenkinos makes us wonder at these miracles that we are so easily drawn into the novel. Despite everything that seems to happen by chance in the novel, however, Foenkinos ties the whole story together in 117 'mini' chapters, which are not only told from the points of view of Nathalie, Markus and even Charles, but sometimes also consist of nothing but facts. For instance, one chapter will describe Nathalie and Markus having dinner together and then next will simply enumerate the ingredients used to make their risotto. One chapter will tells us about how Nathalie hops on a train and the next will detail the arrival and departure times of her journey. In some ways, this is the juxtaposition between the surreal and banal, the circumstantial and deliberate.

It is in one of these chapters that Foenkinos cites Larousse in explaining the literal meaning of the title:
La délicatesse : n.f.
1. Fait d’être délicat. (To be delicate)
2. Litt. Etre en délicatesse avec quelqu’un : être en froid, en mauvais termes avec quelqu’un. (To be in delicacy with someone: to be on bad terms with someone)
Indeed, delicacy manifests itself throughout the novel. Nathalie herself is delicate in a petit and charming way and is the outwardly embodiment of delicacy. Yet after she becomes widowed, she finds herself in a delicate situation of which the indelicate Charles hopes to take advantage. As Nathalie herself concludes, even Chloe - her colleague - asks indelicate questions and cares only for "des ragots" (gossip). Nathalie becomes "en délicatesse" with them. On the other end of the delicacy spectrum, however, is Markus. Considerate of Nathalie's feelings and gentle towards her, Markus encapsulates the warmth and understanding of delicacy. It is through such delicacy that Nathalie finds solace and renewed love. For example, we are told in the first page of the novel that is "assez rare pour une Nathalie" (rare for a Nathalie) to not feel any nostalgia. Yet after Markus gives her un distributeur de Pez as a gift, she is transported back into her childhood past. How lovely is it that Foenkinos shows us delicacy in a man whom is otherwise regarded by those around him as graceless and ungainly?

Finally, the novel itself is also a work of great delicacy. In the final chapters, Nathalie reveals that she used to play hide-and-seek in her garden and would open her eyes after 117 seconds. Of course, the question of chance and coincidence now emerges in not only the story but also in the work, for it is in the 117th chapter that the novel concludes with a one-liner: Nathalie ouvrit les yeux. In a poetic and delicate way, it is indeed as if each chapter of the novel was only a second.

It is within one of these "seconds" that Foenkinos writes one of the most striking lines I have ever read in any French novel: "le Larousse s'arrête là où commence le coeur" (Dictionaries stops where the heart starts). So, although Foenkinos intersperses what appears to be fortuitous with facts and definitions throughout La délicatesse, it is finally emotion from le coeur - the impulsive act of un baiser gratuit - that trumps rationality and brings two seemingly disparate, but delicate, individuals together.
La vie peut être belle quand on sait l'inconvénient d'être né.
Pourquoi sommes-nous autant marqués par un détail, un geste, qui font de ces instants minimes le coeur d'une époque?
On peut penser, toujours dans la folie, d'un mouvement presque démiurge, que l'on est au coeur du coeur de l'autre. Que la vie se résume à un vase clos des valves pulmonaires.
Le sentiment amoureux est le sentiment le plus culpabilisant. On peut alors penser que toutes les plaies de l'autre viennent de soi. On peut penser, toujours dans la folie, d'un mouvement presque démiurge, que l'on est au coeur du coeur de l'autre. Que la vie se résume à un vase clos des valves pulmonaires.
La vie peut être belle quand on sait l'inconvénient d'être né.
Le sommeil est un chemin qui mène à la soupe du lendemain.
Après leur dernier échange, il était parti lentement. Sans faire de bruit. Aussi discret qu'un point-virgule dans un roman de huit cents pages.

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