Lydie Salvayre: Into the Rawness of the Psyche
It was January 16, 2017, and we were in the pit of winter. The huge buildings of South Kensington- the Museums, the high terraced housing, the embassies- could have been glaciers, so much did the sensation of coldness fill us all in the often unforgiving streets. London had become an outpost of the Arctic, and we walked up the stairs to the salons of the French Institute, for the first Reading Group of the New Year.
The frost outside seeming forgotten, if only for a brief couple of hours, the author to be analyzed by us was Lydie Salvayre, both a working psychiatrist and a writer who can boast the Prix Goncourt for her work, ‘Pas Pleurer’- translated as ‘Cry, Mother Spain’. And the translator, M. Faccini, of this piece was actually with us, microphone in hand, alongside the moderator, M. Dominic Glynn, from the University of London.
I had not been able to find a copy of this book to borrow in the Mediatheque. In any case, I had found other volumes by Lydie Salvayre. By the time of the Reading Group, I had got through ‘BW’ and ‘La Vie Commune’, and started ‘Les Belles Ames’. Thus, I approached the Reading Group from a different angle to those of other contributors- but sometimes a mixture of perspectives can appear to facilitate debate.
I slipped into the salons. I briefly talked with the moderator, the translator, and Madame Line Playfair, about the previous subject of the Reading Group, the complicated Roland Barthes. I then wondered how Lydie Salvayre, being a psychiatrist, would have judged Roland Barthes- as charming but narcissistic, perhaps, as a loner feeding off his personal sense of depression, or, to adopt Barthes’s term, ‘ennui’- Baudelaire’s very own word, at the core of the artist’s being?
The current Reading Group began. ‘Pas Pleurer’ was discussed as a book about the Spanish Civil War and the flight of Lydie Salvayre’s family from a country wracked by the battle between the besieged Republic and the attacking fascists under General Franco. A comparison was made between the Spain of the 1930’s and the Syria of today, in terms of the bitterness and blood, of the host of exiled refugees mourning their forfeited homeland. I could not add much to this facet of the debate, apart from noting another past Reading Group, about Prosper Merimee’s ‘Carmen’, in which Spain is portrayed as the exotic, the other, with France instead seeming to represent the strait- laced, the classical norm. The translator, M. Faccini, commented that, back in the 1930’s, Spain would have been backward and feudal- if I may use such loaded and pejorative adjectives- compared to France- though, in the 21st century, Spain, for all its difficulties, can be viewed as thoroughly modern (I myself remain a skeptic about the problem that is called ‘progress’). ‘Pas Pleurer’ is apparently full of many languages, and, according to the translator, Lydie Salvayre was criticized for using Spanish instead of her native Catalan- she was felt to be betraying Catalan nationalism.
I managed in between the often grimly intricate discussions on ‘Pas Pleurer’ to talk about the alternative three books by the author I had gone through. I felt that Lydie Salvayre’s French seemed simple- it was limpid and clear, I said- and I believe her books would suit someone who is a callow beginner in French, whose awareness of the language is not substantial. These three novels all shared the phenomenon of involving an intentional claustrophobia, with characters being confined in a narrow theatre in which to interact. In ‘La Vie Commune’ we witness two rival secretaries- one younger, one older- at first subtly needling and then ever more outrageously shredding each other apart in a small office in an advertising firm run by M. Meyer. In ‘Les Belles Ames’, the oddly inquisitive middle class tourists who have paid to view the ‘entertaining’ (?) poverty festering in France and other European countries are cooped up in a touring coach, and the result is a sense of increasing psychological horror.
The title of Lydie Salvayre’s book, ‘BW’, is the initials of her editor, Bernard Wallet, who created the independent publishing house, ‘Verticales’, which has brought out many of her own works. This book also adheres to the pattern of characters being thrust all too closely together. The difference is that, in BW, they are real people, one of them herself. She is addressing, talking to, interviewing, her editor who has gone blind. Their conversation is what forms the book. Lydie Salvayre records the life story of a man who is trapped in a medical catastrophe- that of losing his sight. The book details the clash in Bernard between his commitment to books, to literature, involving sitting on a chair and holding an item of card and paper a few pounds in weight, and activity, above all voyaging across the Middle East and Asia, meeting people who are different, encountering situations that are strange/ dangerous/ both.
The book starts thus:
‘I am leaving.
‘Always he says I am leaving, I’m off.’
This is a (sort of) travel book, but one possessing a tragic conclusion- with the subject, BW, no longer able to see, surrounded by doctors and by his own memories of his role as a publisher, but, above all, he regards himself as an explorer in some of the most troubled and corrupt areas of the planet.
The future is a blind tunnel, and BW is compelled to look back, back, back on the turbulent fields of his past.
The sentences, the paragraphs, are short, as if they are spat out. The prose is honed down, far from sophisticated and elaborate, to reflect the personality of BW- a man who is honest, blunt, sincere, and not altogether safe. In Turkey, in Afghanistan, he confronts, and is hounded by, the police. In Beirut and Lebanon, he is faced by mutilation and murder, carried out for the sake of God, and he realizes the cruel folly of religion, and the inescapable viciousness that is at the core of the human species. Religion does not wisely constrain, rather it malignly liberates, whatever is base and wicked in our nature. Religion talks about compassion while practicing the reverse, and BW- let us use this acronym for Bernard Wallet, in line with Lydie Salvayre- is someone attuned to the reality around himself, however uncomfortable it may be. As the book explains, in reference to Lebanon:
‘It is that, on all sides, the maddest fanaticism had placed its backside upon reason and morality. It is that the name of Allah blessed the cruellest brutality while the Christians welded their crucifixes onto the armour of tanks…
‘Since Beirut, BW feels a violent disgust for all that touches on this religious thing, a disgust without limit.’
BW seems, in line with the ‘drop out’ ethos of the 1960’s, to prefer, with a degree of hippie naivete, the exotic and alien creeds of Hinduism and Sikhism to the familiar harsh monotheism of Islam or Christianity.
BW always senses that he is worming his way beneath the façade of our existence, to find the falsehood beneath. He recalls, at the book’s end, a trip he made to the tomb of Kerouac in 1986- but he felt nothing there, and he recalls the endless factories surrounding the grave. The pilgrimage to Kerouac’s grave turned out to be more mundane than transcendental.
The question is then begged: Has Lydie Salvayre, in this book, discovered the truth of the human being that is BW? Certainly, her work as a doctor and psychiatrist is manifest in the book. A whole page reproduces in plain, prosaic scientific detail the medical intervention to be carried out on BW’s damaged eyes. One is witnessing in this book an act of ‘talking therapy’, with BW being ‘on the couch’, and Lydie
Salvayre as the psychoanalyst- or even acolyte?
The problem is that the author needs to be more brutal, in producing the biography of a subject- the writer should be ruthless, in giving us all the shadows, in addition to the illumination, that a character contains. We are all a mixture of day and night.
And Lydie Salvayre holds back from judging, from pinning down, BW. It is not a eulogy, this book, but it does carry the burden of a certain superficiality. We as readers require the wickedness, in addition to the wisdom, of BW- and Lydie Salavyre exposes not enough of BW, and also not enough of herself. The human creature being what it is, it revels in the flaws, the sins, of others. BW is not described as a saint, but we would prefer more’ dishing of the dirt’, more delving into scandal. Biography feeds off scandal.
The blindness of BW becomes here a symbol of our own shortcomings, which will always approach catastrophe in the end.
Perhaps Lydie Salavayre finds it easier to be vicious when she deals with fictional personalities rather than a real, actual man. In ‘la Vie Commune’, she again is as much a psychiatrist as an author, with this being a baroque case study of the mental and spiritual decline of a post- menopausal woman, nearing retirement, who resents being replaced by a younger woman in the workplace. She also delights in giving us all the shallow foibles, and the eventually deadly resentments, of the ‘petit bourgeoisie’. I argued to the Reading Group that the author implies it is a narrow conformist outlook, rather than a free liberal one, which produces neurosis and then psychosis.
The office where the two secretaries work becomes an arena. Suzanne is the narrator- the book is in the first person, so we have a view of madness ‘from the inside’, as it were. She notes down, she criticizes, the shape of her rival’s body, the comments, the prejudices, of the very unwelcome rival, whose large breasts engender fear in the older secretary nearing that watershed of being sixty. In the end, both secretaries are afflicted with the bigotry of their class. The younger secretary shows such faith in the police, observes casually that Meyer is a Jewish name, and has disdain for Communists, sneering: Have you ever met a communist? Suzanne is made of the same ‘petite bourgeoise’ material. Her approach to the puzzle- the dilemma- of life is summed up in one sentence:
‘I love numbers and I love order.’
The way someone chews gum, smokes cigarettes, or dumps paper in a bin, become part of a war existing in the head of the older woman. We never know if she is imagining, making up, a fictional delusional conflict with the other woman, or if the tension is real, both ladies indulging in conscious provocation. The emphasis on how petty attitudes and actions can in fact be cataclysmic on some alternative plane reminds one of the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, where demons tempt mortals through a series of seemingly trivial sins, through the banality of malice, into the doors of damnation. Lydie Salvayre does have a sense of sulphur, an element of brimstone, in her books, and I will go over this facet of her later.
Doctors feature a lot in this novel- Suzanne’s son- in- law is a doctor- once more a reflection of Lydie Salvayre’s membership of the medical profession.
At the climax, Suzanne, who is approaching psychosis, whom M. Meyer threatens with the hint she should consider early retirement, attacks her enemy in the office. Hair is pulled, screams are emitted. And Suzanne is pensioned off by a shocked M. Meyer. She may have been released from her work, but her insanity will not let her go. Even her friends- the elderly M. Longuet, a neighbour, and her housemaid, an illiterate Spanish woman with a tendency to gossip- cannot be trusted by her because of her paranoia. She is possibly a schizophrenic, and this novel is perhaps a stereotypical perspective on schizophrenia. As a not always happy psychiatric patient myself, I recognize Lydie Salvayre’s depiction of the unstable mind. And what the author does imply is that our bigotry, our prejudice, in society as a whole, must derive from something insane in us all.
The final book to be looked at is ‘Les Belles Ames’. This also, but apparently more subtly, assails the outlook of the French bourgeoisie. A travel agency- ‘Real Voyage’- organizes trips to the slums areas of Europe for the obviously well off- who are approaching poverty as voyeurs, and find, in the end, it is not exotic, just grey and tragic. This is evidently satire, and Lydie Salvayre does make fun of the ineffectual and hypocritical middle class ‘Liberal left’ which is not so Liberal or Left- inclining as it appears to be:
‘To make the décor more destroy, it would be necessary to prompt artists with a view to smashing up telephone boxes artistically and to artistically burn cars, which would bring in addition a touch of colour in an ensemble where grey dominates.’
‘This so beautiful Europe which has claimed to offer to the world the very image of perfection shows you today, if I dare say, its backside.’
‘Leave your confined closets, cling to the edge of tears, and be poverty. You can only conceive poverty if you become poverty, he says, upset.’
The book begins with the uneasy sexual relationship between two young inhabitants of the banlieues- Jason and Olympe- and finishes with an assault on the coach carrying the ‘tourists’, Jason attacking one of the middle class poseurs whose trip is really no better than the visits paying guests made to Bedlam to gawp at the antics of the mad people in their chains. I suggested to the translator of ‘Pas Pleurer’ that he should consider as his next project ‘Les Belles Ames’, to uncover the ghastly indifference of the French Establishment to the poverty and violence of the banlieues.
The office in ‘La Vie Commune’, the coach in ‘Les Belles Ames’ - these are claustrophobic arenas where individuals are in searing warfare. One is reminded of Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos’, that play whose setting is damnation, where three characters torment each other for eternity, and whose most sordid line is ‘Hell is other people’. This line could sum up Lydie Salvayre’s angle as a psychiatrist on her fiction. Delving into the rawness of the psyche, she inevitably, as I have already inferred, gives us a hint of brimstone and sulphur. But she lacks the sustained sarcasm and depth of a Sartre. Her fiction needs to be more malicious. Maybe being nasty came more readily to Sartre, as a man, than it does to Salvayre, as a woman.
The Reading Group finished. We in the audience chatted politely over wine and cheese, then we left… I trudged through South Kensington’s streets to the Underground Station, came down to the platform, and boarded the train. It was not far from full, people glowering at each other, tired and resentful, and the tunnel ahead was dark…