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Absurdity and Death: Meaning and Irony in Three Short French Novels

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French novelists are drawn to the absurdist genre for reasons related to their philosophical and literary history, namely the works of Albert Camus, Jean Genet and Jean Paul Sartre. The bloody history of France, along with the transgressional nature of its culture, have shaped a nation unafraid of using irony and absurdity when discussing sensitive issues such as death and suffering. Absurdism arose out of, and developed alongside, existentialism and nihilism. And within absurdist literature exists nihilist individuals, existential ruminations and ironic consideration. In the following three short French novels we experience individuals seeking meaning from the seemingly meaningless. We discover human beings, often quirky, humorous and frivolous, but also brooding and sombre, attempting to attribute significance to sometimes ghastly crimes. 

The Islanders

Like Camus's Meursault, Olivier is returning home to Versailles to bury his mother. Disconcerted and discontented, he becomes trapped by the severe weather - it is days before Christmas - and runs into Jeanne, an old friend, and her blind brother, Rodolphe. Rodolphe, who is obsessed by Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, suggests they have dinner together, along with a homeless man he's taken in, a downtrodden individual by the name of Roland who has just lost his job as a Father Christmas. It becomes apparent Olivier and Jeanne, who were lovers in the past, were united in a bad business which occurred years previously: the death of a young boy. The situation brings out Olivier's tamed alcoholism, and before long the self-destructive nature of these two indelibly marked individuals surfaces. Written by an author described by John Banville as the "true heir to Simenon", this novella juxtaposes tragedy and humour and draws you into its dark bosom. 

Grey Souls

It is the winter of 1917, and a small French village is seemingly deaf to the carnage occurring on the front lines just kilometres away. The town's indifference to the enormity of the Great War is unshaken by the steady flow of damaged and dead bodies flowing through its streets. However, the lives of the inhabitants of the village are disturbed when a young girl - the nine-year-old daughter of a local restaurateur - is found murdered. Two further deaths confounds and horrifies the town: the suicide of a schoolteacher and the death of the narrator's wife. Our narrator was an investigator at the time, but twenty years later he is unconvinced the true perpetrator was caught. Piecing together the details of the case he slowly forms a shocking narrative. 'Grey Souls' is an account of the senselessness, the perplexity, of a town faced with the death of an innocent young girl, but unconcerned about the mass slaughter and suffering of men close by. It is a meditation on life, the fatuity of war and how we react to the sometimes ghastly and grotesque nature of death.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

Bilido is an unusual individual, a postman by trade. An introvert, on the surface he is thoroughly unremarkable. He is not sociable, he is not talkative and - despite his name - he is far from libidinous. However, away from the prying eyes of the world he enjoys an unethical past-time: he steams open envelopes and reads them within the confines of his home before resealing them to be sent to their rightful owners. He derives meaning from the lives of others, and remains indifferent o his own pursuits. His prize correspondence is a couple who write to each other using only haiku. Vicariously living through his neighbour Gaston he develops a fascination with the man's pen-pal Segolene, and becomes enamoured by their unique relationship and the beauty of haiku. Tragedy quickly occurs; Gaston is fatally injured by a truck while trying to deliver a letter to Segolene, whom Bilido has grown to love. Bilodo is miserable at the thought Segolene will not receive a corresponding haiku and develops a plan to take Gaston's place. However, he will have to master the art of haiku. 'The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman' is charming, imaginative novella full of delightful prose

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