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Maylis de Kerangal, the Novelist Watching Us Work

At the beginning of Maylis de Kerangal’s novel “Painting Time,” which was published in French in 2018 and in English in 2021, the central character, Paula Karst, is having drinks with two former classmates from the Institut de Peinture, in Brussels. All working trompe-l’oeil painters, the trio are both jazzed and trepidatious about the reunion; the intensity of their training, almost ten years before, bonded them as friends and cemented them as competitors. (And, O.K., possibly as lovers.) Possessed by a “desirable madness” for their craft, they should be spending the evening working, or resting in order to work more. But something draws them together. Paula, who has just painted a film set in Moscow, is entreated to “describe your exploits” first:

Instead of panoramic impressions and sweeping narration, instead of a chronological account, she begins by describing the details of Anna Karenina’s sitting room, which she had to finish painting by candlelight after a power failure plunged the sets into darkness the night before the very first day of filming; she begins slowly, as though her words escort the image in a simultaneous translation, as though language is what allows us to see, and makes the rooms appear, the cornices and doors, the woodwork, the shape of the wainscoting and outline of the baseboards, the delicacy of the stucco, and from there, the very particular treatment of the shadows that had to stretch out across the walls; she lists with precision the range of colors—celadon, pale blue, gold, China White—and bit by bit she gathers speed, forehead high and cheeks flaming, launching into the story of that long night of painting, that mad crunch.

Were I to begin this review with panoramic impressions, I might mention the weird refrain that looped in my head—it’s so good it makes me want to puke—while reading de Kerangal’s novels. Were I to begin with a chronological account, I might narrate how I discovered “Painting Time” in a bookstore, never having heard of its author, and went on to recommend it widely and increasingly indignantly to many people, none of whom had heard of de Kerangal, either. However, Paula Karst is right; if I began that way I would be getting ahead of myself. Although much of the novel shows Paula painting, we first see her operating as a kind of writer: using language to set the scene and then to slowly and deliberately up the stakes. Indeed, we learn the source of the story’s tension before her friends do; the actual writer here knows that her reader might need a bit of dramatic nudging to care about wainscoting and celadon, though the words themselves are mesmerizing. Paula has an ideal audience—fellow-painters, who will know exactly what having to work by candlelight means—but that doesn’t mean she can skimp on the details. She must first describe the woodwork, the stucco, and especially the “very particular treatment of the shadows” before she reveals that all this work, the product of years of training, was under threat.

The phrase “as though language is what allows us to see,” precise in the way it describes the power of words to make something almost real, suggests de Kerangal’s own philosophy of style. Abstraction, myth, and narrative must be built upon a foundation of specificity; description is what allows language to transcend description. De Kerangal’s novels tend to describe workplace dramas, and she’s particularly interested in process, how people accomplish a task during a set period of time. Here it’s decorative painting; elsewhere it’s restaurant work (“The Cook,” from 2016), a heart transplant (“Mend the Living,” from 2014), or the construction of an ambitious suspension bridge (“Birth of a Bridge,” from 2010). The project at the center of each book may be career-defining—in “Painting Time,” Paula will eventually accept the gig of a lifetime, a reproduction of the cave paintings at Lascaux—but de Kerangal also studies romance, family conflicts, hobbies, and history. Her books aren’t just technical portraits but careful, steady re-creations of emotional worlds. If, in her work as a painter, Paula takes the descriptions in a novel, “Anna Karenina,” and makes them real, then de Kerangal converts that process into something that is both real and abstract: another novel, which derives its power from the precision that accrues within it.

Born in Toulon, in the South of France, in 1967, de Kerangal published her first novel in 2000. Translated literature can have a jumpy path in the U.S.; in February, Archipelago released “Eastbound,” a 2012 work, translated by Jessica Moore, which follows a twenty-year-old conscript on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Delay aside, it’s an exciting occasion, not only because the translation of any of de Kerangal’s books is a gift but because translation is so essential to her work, in both form and content.

For de Kerangal, translation often serves, as it does in “Painting Time,” as a metaphor for the use of language in general. One of the most striking aspects of de Kerangal’s writing is the vocabulary—while she drops a dictionary-cracker now and then, she also frequently employs the sort of words that are easy to translate, because whatever they describe is so specific that there is only one way to say it. Her research involves documentary-style immersion, during which she harvests terms and phrases from the professions she depicts. (In “Mend the Living,” a patient’s ailment transforms her into a “shaky, claudicant creature,” and a young surgeon delights in the “auscultation” of his lover’s body.) Too often, she says, this kind of language is deemed “not glamorous enough” for the novel; by using it, she aims to make literature “porous to the world.” Drawing on lexicons from architecture (“the swirling volutes of her cigarette”) to zoology (“the digitigrade gait of the sardana dancer when he’s nearing a quintal”), she imbues simple observations with a profound sense of interconnectedness. You could say that a man walks on the balls of his feet, but that wouldn’t capture the links between this man (a heart surgeon), birds, and a style of Catalan dance; it might say something about the person, but not about the world through which he walks. De Kerangal also embraces colloquial speech, and the slang in her long, racing sentences heightens the feeling that we’re moving between one language and another.

Although the metaphor of translation appears in all of de Kerangal’s novels, it’s “Mend the Living” that features it most movingly. (There are two translations; Moore’s is the one to use.) The novel begins at 5:50 a.m., when twenty-year-old Simon Limbeau wakes up to go surfing with his friends. The water is described ominously, but it’s the exhausted van ride afterward that sets the story in motion: the boys crash into a pole, and Simon, riding without a seat belt, flies through the windshield. He arrives at the hospital in a coma, brain hemorrhaging; his condition, the attending physician must firmly convey to his parents, is “irreversible.” We learn that in 1959, at the Twenty-third International Congress of Neurology, a neurologist and an infectious-disease specialist presented their findings with the “cold clarity of those who, conscious of the fundamental import of what they have to say, abstain from any embellishment and simply describe, describe, describe”: from then on, the heart stopping could no longer be considered “the sign of death.” Life was technically defined by the function of the brain.

Practically, this is what made organ transplantation possible. The physician is so firm when speaking to Simon’s parents because, in order to harvest and transport the boy’s heart, he needs to begin an urgent process, which requires handoffs to an array of doctors, coördinators, and potential recipients waiting across the country. Nevertheless, old symbols die hard. When the hospital’s transplant coördinator mentions the heart, Simon’s mother, Marianne, imagines a haunting montage of associations in response to the realization that her son is dead: “the bird-of-night terrors panicking inside a child’s chest; the staccato drum accompanying Anakin Skywalker’s destiny; the shot beneath the skin when the first wave rises up—touch my pecs he’d said to her one night, muscles tensed, monkey grimace.”

The procedure that the hospital hopes to initiate is not the only call-and-response under threat here. De Kerangal shows how the function of the heart, the way it responds to stimuli received by the brain, transforms those stimuli into meaning. The devastating irony is that, even as Simon’s heart keeps beating, his mother’s is breaking. One surgeon, the one with the digitigrade gait, “sees the heart as the linchpin of depictions (paintings and poems) that organize the relation of the human being to the body, to other beings, to Creation, and to the gods; the young surgeon is amazed at the way it’s imprinted in speech . . . always situated right at the intersection of the literal and the figurative, the muscle and the affect; he takes great delight in metaphors and figures of speech in which it is the analogy of life itself.” This is why the recipient of Simon’s heart, Claire Méjan, works as a translator: her body becomes a vessel for what we might call another person’s work, and that work involves converting the organ’s symbolic power into literal life.

“Mend the Living” is a circadian novel; the successful transplant ends exactly twenty-four hours after Simon’s alarm goes off. In narrative, as in life, time is a useful frame, because it moves forward at the same pace it always has; our experience of it is what changes. In “Mend the Living,” each section focusses on a different character, a different node in the process of the transplant, whose relationship to time is contingent, from the I.C.U. director closely following protocol to the sleep-deprived nurse desperately hoping for a man to text her. Although Claire has been waiting for a suitable heart for months, relocating to a small, dark apartment so that she can be near the hospital, she feels “it’s not that time has changed speed, slowed down by paralysis . . . no, it just crumbles away in a dismal continuity. The alternation of day and night soon has no caesura.” Simon’s parents, meanwhile, want to prolong time. When Marianne calls her ex-husband to tell him what happened, she becomes “paralyzed by the horror that suddenly rose in her at the sound of this voice, so dear . . . but suddenly estranged, abominably estranged, because it arose from a space-time where Simon’s accident never happened.” She sobs and cannot speak, knowing that, once she corrects the “anachronism” of that voice, she can never again “experience this disappeared time” when Simon was alive.

Cartoon by Jared Nangle

“Eastbound” is the only one of de Kerangal’s works in translation that does not take a profession as its subject, but it clarifies her interest in young adults, full of promise, with the unique relationship to time this entails. Most of these characters have a vocation, an obsession that helps them structure their ideas of what comes next: for Simon Limbeau, it’s surfing; for Paula Karst, it’s trompe l’oeil; for Mauro, of “The Cook,” it’s food. But “Eastbound” begins, “These guys come from Moscow and don’t know where they’re going.” Aliocha is one of these more than a hundred “guys”—not boys, not men—who line “the walls in the passageways and corridors, sitting, standing, stretched out on the berths, letting their arms dangle, their feet dangle, letting their bored resignation dangle in the void.” They’re on their way to Army training, but they don’t know where, exactly, that is. Once you get to Siberia, the logic goes, “what difference does it make?”

Like most men in Moscow between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven, Aliocha didn’t want to serve. Up until draft day, he quixotically hoped for some exemption, whether through a fake medical certificate, “direct attempts at bribery,” or, if all else failed, a Hail Mary conception. (After six months, a pregnancy allows a woman’s partner to avoid enlistment.) Sadly, Aliocha is a virgin, and on the train his high-flown associations with this “territory of banishment,” this “giant oubliette of the Tsarist empire,” crash to earth with one pragmatic thought: “Siberia—fuck!” Surrounded by his aggressive, carousing compatriots, he suddenly has an idea, with enough conviction that it will become the focus of the rest of the book: Run away.

If Aliocha’s inability to evade conscription is the result of a complex system, then his attempt to defect is represented as a kind of production, requiring the trust, knowledge, and courage of several people. His initial plan is to disembark at a station so big that he can blend into a crowd without the sergeant’s noticing—the sergeant who, not unlike the nocturnal nurse in “Mend the Living,” is distracted by a love interest. In the course of the book, Aliocha acquires two accomplices: a provodnitsa, or hostess, who clocks him making his first failed attempt to escape, and Hélène, a Frenchwoman in first class who boarded the train spontaneously, to leave her Russian lover, Anton.

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