Translated by Sam Taylor
Reviewed by Harriet
Back in 1977, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room was published. On the cover was the bold (and possibly correct) statement that ‘This novel will change lives’. The phrase, misquoted nowadays as ‘This novel changes lives’, has become a kind of literary cliché, but when it pops up rather in passing part way through The Mystery of Henri Pick, it could truthfully apply to the mysterious manuscript the existence of which forms the subject of this thoroughly delightful novel.
David Foenkinos is a well-known French novelist, and several of his books have been made into films, including this one, apparently, in 2019. But this seems to be the first time it has been translated into English, excellently done by the always reliable Sam Taylor. It’s partly a satire on the French literary and book-publishing world, partly the story of an investigation into a curious mystery, and partly a charming story of the transformation of a number of unsatisfactory lives. And it holds its final secret until the very end, a fact so cleverly concealed that I had to go back to the beginning and re-read the whole book to see how it was done.
In Crozon, a small town in the west of Brittany, there is a remarkable library. Although it functions as libraries always do, lending books, at the back of the building is an annexe, the Library of Rejected Manuscripts. Any author who has failed to get his book published can deposit the manuscript here, and the shelves are full of them – the only proviso is that the writers must bring the books in person. One day, the library is visited by a young woman publisher, Delphine Despero, and her new discovery, and lover, Frédéric Koskas. Delphine’s parents live in Crozon, and when she and Frédéric are visiting, they decide to explore the library. They return to the family home in the evening in a state of great excitement. They describe their happy afternoon reading some of the often hilarious manuscripts:
“And then we found a masterpiece”, Delphine announced.
“To start with I found a few good pages—I mean, why not, after all?—and then I was just swept away by the story. I couldn’t put that book down. I read the whole thing in two hours. It blew me away. And it was written in such a strange style, simple and poetic at the same time”.
The novel, which they have brought home with them, is called The Last Hours of a Love Affair. It has the author’s name on the cover: Henri Pick. It’s a name well known in Crozon – not as a writer, though. Henri Pick, who died a couple of years earlier, was the proprietor of a successful pizza restaurant. A quiet, unassuming man, he was never known to even read a book, let alone have any aspiration to write one. Yet here is the proof that he apparently had an internal life which he successfully concealed from even his closest family. The young couple visit his widow Madeleine, who is astonished, though she recalls that he used to go to the pizzeria early every morning – perhaps that was when he wrote? When she reads it, though, she feels sure he was remembering some tender moments in their early life.
The book is published and, with the wonderful story that accompanies it, is a massive success. There’s a media frenzy, the novel is translated into numerous foreign languages, and has an serious academic article devoted to it. The royalties flood in, transforming the lives of Madeleine and her sad divorced daughter Josephine. The repercussions spread further, too – many visitors now come to the library, one of whom, a beautiful young man, starts a passionate love affair with the disillusioned librarian Magali. Henri’s pizzeria, now a creperie, is swamped with customers who simply want to eat in his famous establishment. Rejected manuscripts are now re-read eagerly by the companies that rejected them, and one lucky author, whose book was rejected thirty-five times, finds himself suddenly in print. And Delphine, the discoverer of the manuscript, is head-hunted by publishers eager to replicate her successful discovery
However, the whole story sounds deeply suspicious to a once-successful literary critic, Jean-Michel Rouche. His popularity has waned, and he’s living in semi-poverty. But when he reads the story of Henri Pick, he immediately smells a rat. It just doesn’t sound probable to him that this man could have written such a book. After a couple of trips to Brittany, he thinks he may have found the truth, though a few more pieces need to be added to the puzzle. The investigation provides an exciting and enjoyable change to his rather sad life, and introduces him to a woman who will become very important to him. Is he right in his deductions? And if so, will he reveal all?
Pushkin Press has produced this novel in collaboration with the global streaming service Walter Presents, so I imagine we will soon get a chance to see it on the UK’s Channel Four. But don’t wait for that. Read it now!
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (Pushkin Press, 2020). 978-1782275824, 288pp., paperback original.
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