Power of Flies (French Literature Series)

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9781564784209: Power of Flies (French Literature Series)
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The Power of Flies begins in a courtroom, where a man is undergoing an interrogation. He has committed a crime, and he must now explain himself. But instead of letting the judge, lawyer, and psychiatrist question him, he asks himself all the questions--and answers them. While ranting on to the court about various topics--his family, the museum where he works as a tour guide, and even the French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal--the narrator of The Power of Flies reveals himself to be both calculating and unstable. In this latest novel from acclaimed French writer Lydie Salvayre, it is up to the reader to sort through his philosophical diatribe to discover why this man turned killer.

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About the Author:

Lydie Salvayre, daughter of refugees from the Spanish Civil War, grew up in the south of France, where she received a degree in psychiatry. In her mid-forties she published her first novel, The Declaration. She has since published nine other books, including Everyday Life and The Power of Flies, and has received numerous awards, including the Prix Hermes and the Prix Novembre.

Review:

The power of flies; they win battles, hinder our soul from acting, consume our body. Blaise Pascal proposed this notion in Pensées, his seventeenth-century postconversion writings, which provide the intertext for Lydie Salvayre's The Power of Flies, originally published in 1995 as La Puissance des mouches. A Pascal devotee a tour guide in the philosopher's abbey at Port-Royal-Des-Champs is on trial for the murder of an unidentified victim; as he narrates his life events in a disjointed coordination of personal anecdotes and literary interpretations, the novel unravels into a testimony of domestic violence. Despite the brutality on display, The Power of Flies is compulsively readable and deeply funny; all of Salvayre's work is governed by a subversive laughter that springs from trauma and hopelessness. This nimble translation by Jane Kuntz reveals the author's delicate balance between trenchant humor, unrelenting irony, and both interfamilial and institutionalized violence.

...

Salvayre's characters dwell in society's margins, death and wretchedness being the most fairly distributed thing[s] in the world. In La Compagnie des spectres (The Company of Ghosts, 1997), teenaged Louisiane wards off a city processor trying to evict her, just as she manages her mentally ill mother, who cannot escape the memories of the Nazi occupation and of the fatal beating of her brother. Salvayre often pairs the recursive events of war with the banality of contemporary bureaucratic life, reminding her readers that our current moment is no less violent or oppressive. The stifling burden of memory is mirrored in her voices. Man is forever doomed to chase his tail, exclaims the narrator of The Power of Flies. Man as dog, physically exercising his solipsism, is an apt analogy for the speakers in all of Salvayre's novels, in which narrators hold one side of a conversation, the other side of which we never hear. This makes for an odd kind of first-person storytelling one without an internalized I. These are not soliloquies; what we have, rather, is a peculiar kind of exterior monologue, wherein the speaker employs an unnaturally elevated language, often interrogating himself. Salvayre, a psychiatrist by profession, is no stranger to talking, which in The Power of Flies becomes part catharsis and part confession: "The more I talk, her narrator complains, "the deeper I descend into a well of mystery."

. . .

Like those in Beckett's novels, Salvayre's narrators fluctuate between actual and projected selves, and yet even her living characters do not live, properly speaking. In The Power of Flies, our narrator surmises that his mother was murdered by his father at the moment of her rape, that her entire adult life has been a state of death under a despotic husband. Such people are the flies buzzing around the decomposing corpse of existence: The world is vile, because it is black with blood and swarming with flies. The real Port-Royal was destroyed in the early eighteenth century; outside the fictional world, no one today could guide visitors through its valiant histories or remind them of self-denial and piety by showing them Pascal's belt. The docent, then, becomes a symbol for a lost construct of hope and responsibility. In turn, his obsession with reading Pascal the novel's cover displays a copy of Pensées fanned to resemble a buzzing insectmorphs into an ever-building hatred: Do you know . . . that when hatred sets in, it takes hold of your entire being? And infests it. . . . Hatred . . . has the power of flies, he persists; it is undiscerning. In French, the word for fly, mouche, was once also a slang term for spy. Salvayre contests the devil's status as sole adversary; she suggests that we are all in collusion with malice. --Bookforum

"There are innocuous books that charm you, gently surprise you at moments you didn't expect, blissfully put you to sleep, make you dream of princes and princesses. . . . But there are others, like Lydie Salvayre's novels, that make you sit up and take notice, that directly confront you, that shake you up from the very first sentence, warning you that the test is going to be brutal, the dream is going to be dark, and the princess's smile is going to be painful." --Le Monde

"A Parisian museum tour guide descends into madness and murder, guided by the works of the philosopher Blaise Pascal, in this distinctive novel published in France in 1995. Salvayre (The Company of Ghosts) has constructed a bleak character study through which she examines the nature of criminality and the way the past conspires to consume our souls. The narrator, held for the murder of an unnamed victim, reveals his story in conversations with the judge, a psychiatrist, and a guard in the jail's infirmary. Through anecdotes about his workplace (the abbey at Port-Royal des Champs, associated with Pascal and the Jansenist movement) and his failing marriage and his memories of a dismal childhood, we see a man struggling 'to gain a foothold in the void.' Ruminations on the futility of existence place this squarely in the tradition of the French existentialists: in a nod to Camus, the narrator's cellmate is in jail for 'killing an Arab.' There are also echoes of Don Quixote in the flashes of absurd humor and the theme of a man led to his destruction by overzealous reading. Throughout, Salvayre handles this ambitious framework with great sangfroid. Recommended for literary fiction collections." --Library Journal

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