Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean

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Translated by Adriana Hunter

Reviewed by Simon

Peirene are well-known across the blogsphere for their programme of publishing translated novellas, and grouping them into trios under different series titles. Reader For Hire (1986) is part of the ‘Chance Encounter’ series, which is such a fun concept for a group of books.

The chance encounters at the centre of Reader For Hire aren’t entirely unmeditated: Marie-Constance is the reader in question, and she has actively sought to meet new people, to read to them, as ‘it struck me that my voice was really rather nice’. She places a classified ad to that effect – innocently enough. But an attractive 30-something woman offering to go to people’s houses to read to them – in a French novel, no less – raises eyebrows, as Marie-Constance narrates:

Now I’m sitting facing the man at the agency who takes the copy for classified ads. He’s chewing on an extinguished cigarette butt beneath his toothbrush moustache, his eyes pinned on me. It’s difficult to put a spark into dead eyes, but he’s having a go. It’s not up to me to give you advice, he says, but if I were you… I wouldn’t run an ad like that… I really wouldn’t… specially not in a town like ours…. So I ask him why. He nods his head, heaves a sigh, rereads my piece of paper, which he’s fingering helplessly: “Young woman available to read to you in your own home. Works of literature, non-fiction, any sort of book you like.” Then comes my telephone number. You’ll have trouble…

Those ellipses are Jean’s own, and the paragraph is at least three times longer than this; you get a sense of the sort of style Jean favours. Marie-Constance is a fairly introspective, spontaneous person, and the prose has a slight rambling feel to it. It is the tale-telling of the naïve innocent – for she seems to expect everybody will understand her motivation, and takes each job as they come.

The jobs in question kick off with a paraplegic teenager who finds her first story (by Maupassant) so exciting that he has some sort of fit. He’s also rather excited by her short skirt; Reader For Hire keeps reverting to a sexualisation that I would quite happily have done without, particularly when Marie-Constance starts having an affair later in the story. It’s almost as though Raymond Jean had started writing a novella about the joys of literature and reading, and then felt that he had to tick one stereotypical box of French writing, and throw in some sex. It adds nothing worthwhile to the story, and takes away a certain charming innocence.

That quibble aside, there is still plenty to delight the bibliophile in this book. Which of us can resist the paean to literature? Even though few of Marie-Constance’s clients seem particularly appreciative (besides the paraplegic teen and the man with other things on his mind, there is an elderly socialist and her self-flagellating servant), the reader can enjoy discussions about the transformative effects of books. And I loved those elements of Reader For Hire so very much.

My main thoughts, while reading this novella, were that I wish I knew more about French literature. Raymond Jean is writing a love letter to Maupassant, to Baudelaire, to Claude Simon; the only author mentioned that I’d read was Lewis Carroll, and it certainly added to the chapter to know about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But a love letter to reading and the power of literature is still a complete joy, even if the accolades laid at the feet of individual writers were mostly beyond the bounds of my knowledge.

Indeed, this is a novella where the theme and intention are of far more worth than the plot; the drawing of Marie-Constance, the effect of the books, and the tone of the prose are all of much greater significance than her exploits – which feel curiously overdrawn in places, almost as if part of some hallucination, albeit very timid on the scale of hallucinations. The events are all slightly heightened, but Marie-Constance’s response to them remains mundane – even understated. It is a strange, heady mixture. If this reader might have preferred a more straightforward focus on the wonder of literature, then that is perhaps an indication that I was looking in slightly the wrong place – but, even with that acknowledgement, this is a fun, intriguing, and unusual novella that deserves to be one of Peirene’s greatest successes.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Raymond Jean, Reader For Hire (Peirene: London, 2015), 978-1908670229, 168pp., paperback.

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