French Author Nelly Alard's "Couple Mechanics"
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This article is part of a series of profiles of ten Francophone authors who have been long-listed for the Albertine Prize, a reader’s choice award launched this year by the Albertine bookshop in New York. Albertine booksellers selected ten of the best French novels translated into English in the past year; US-based readers can vote between March 16 and April 30th on the Albertine site here.
The premise of Nelly Alard’s Couple Mechanics is simple enough: a woman is betrayed by her husband. Alard has said that she wanted to revisit Simone de Beauvoir’s 1967 novella, The Woman Destroyed, in which the narrator’s husband tells her he is having an affair with a younger woman. As she looks back on her long marriage, she becomes consumed by self-doubt. Alard’s novel, published in French in 2013 and three years later in translation by Adriana Hunter, examines a similar situation nearly 50 years later, through a lens that shows a very different society, one in which relationships between men and women have fundamentally changed, even if the particular scenario has not.
Alard, who is also an actress and a screenwriter, has the ability to slip into each character with ease, inhabiting them and thus truly getting under the readers’ skin. The scene she sets in Couple Mechanics is a certain bobo (at the crossroads of bourgeois and bohemian) Parisian social milieu, in which couples are living in areas on the cusp of gentrification; parents worry about their children in the ethnically and socially diverse public schools although they are part of solid, for the most part white, middle class. Olivier, a political journalist, confesses to his wife, Juliette, a software engineer, that he is having an affair with Victoire, a rising politician. Alard examines what may seem the most banal of situations yet the considerations are far from trite. Juliette decides to hang on to her marriage for dear life, mainly for her children, in a protective, maternal way. But can her marriage, and any marriage, survive such a betrayal?
Juliette’s reflections run the gamut from the same heart-wrenching feelings of betrayal that de Beauvoir’s character Monique experiences, to a more sophisticated self-examination of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. Alard has mentioned opposing de Beauvoir’s feminism against another French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter’s views in her essay “Dead End Feminism”, in which she puts forth the theory that feminism in the past years has been preoccupied with putting men on trial, and has reactivated old stereotypes such as women being seen as defenceless and oppressed, losing sight of other battles that need to be waged. Indeed, Alard examines a man's point of view in Olivier—in three chapters that were not included in the English-language version—he enjoys and then seeks the attention Victoire showers on him, at the same time he asks his wife to help him break off the relationship, genuinely concerned about his role as a father and the woman he married. Olivier is passive while Juliette and Victoire are headstrong and determined on their own diverging paths. In a sense Olivier is a mere accessory, even if he is the cog that causes the wheel to run afoul.
Alard also examined up close the theme of the father figure in her previous and more personal novel, Le Crieur de Nuit (Night Crier) in which she describes the aftermath of the death of an abusive father, with Brittany as a backdrop. Her talent in getting into the skin of each of her characters doubtless comes from acting—in an interview she has said of writing that, “the process is really very close to improvisation when you’re an actor. You start by imagining yourself being that person, in such a situation, what would you think, how would you react, and then things start to escape you and you find yourself saying or doing things you wouldn’t have thought about.” But writing, Alard said, has given her tremendous freedom: “…as an actress, you’re not often given the chance to play the part of a man, while as a writer you get to play all the characters in your head!”
Image of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre courtesy Corbis