A French secretary fantasizes about countering a “No Smoking” sign with one that says, “LET’S OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.”
Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. Dalkey Archive, 117 pp., $12.50, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
If somebody offered you a million dollars to describe the difference between “a Random House book” and “a Simon and Schuster book,” could you do it? Or would you weep silently into your chai tea and think, “There goes the Lamborghini, the second home and my child’s education”?
If you have no idea how one publishing conglomerate differs from another, you’re not alone. These days the largest houses have little or no brand identity – at least not one that anybody but critics and scholars can define. Many of the smaller firms, don’t either. That makes Dalkey Archive Press a rarity: a publisher with a clear brand identity – although part of that brand identity is that you can’t imagine the staff saying “brand identity” instead of, say, “aesthetic” or “sensibility.” Critics often describe Dalkey Archive as a specialist in “experimental” or “avant-garde” books. Director John O’Brien prefers the term “subversive” because its titles to go against the grain. Many come from other countries, about half of them translation.
An example is Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre, who grew up in southern France. Peter Mayle was never like this. This brief novel is about the psychological unraveling of a widowed secretary in her 50s who works for a Paris advertising agency and sinks into a paranoid fury when a new co-worker arrives with the same title. One critic has said that you could read it as “a commentary on today’s cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throws the entire office ecosystem out of whack.” That’s true in the sense that you could read Moby-Dick as a commentary on what happens when you pack a lot of people together on a Nantucket whaler.
Everyday Life, as I read it, is about something larger. It’s a study in the alienation that results not from office conditions but from the isolation that leads people to overinvest emotionally in work. Suzanne is the sort of woman Americans used to call an “office wife.” Faced with a rival, she reacts as many women do to a threat of infidelity, except that her behavior is much more sinister than sifting through pockets and credit-card receipts. She is a hard – maybe impossible – character to like. But Salvayre, writing with a Cartesian spareness, makes you see that part of the problem is that she’s smarter and funnier than others. Suzanne is so enraged when the new secretary posts a “No Smoking” sign that, alone in her apartment, she can’t sleep and composes darkly comic counter-signs. One reads: “LETS OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.” Such humor wouldn’t have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago. By today’s standards, it’s subversive, and just what you would expect from Dalkey Archive.
Best line (tie): No. 1 “Discretion is, in my eyes, the cardinal virtue. I’ll go so far as to say that one ought to be discreet in one’s discretion …” No. 2 “I can’t stand parties, and don’t want to be ridiculed. The energy expended in trying to be frivolous is finally too exhausting.”
Worst line: One page contains only one sentence: “I loathe her, I loathe her, I loathe her.”
Published: November 2006
Caveat lector: This review does not evaluate Jane Kuntz’s translation. It was also based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the on-sale edition may differ.
Furthermore: Everyday Life is not listed on Amazon and possibly other online sites. It available from the publisher www.dalkeyarchive.com. Click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/01/ to read a review of Gail Scott’s My Paris, also from Dalkey Archive. Visit the sites for Random House www.randomhouse.com and Simon and Schuster www.simonsays.com if you want to try to figure out the difference between the two firms.
One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.