The Portrait by Antoine Laurain

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

Review by Annabel

French author Antoine Laurain has already got himself an army of fans (or should that be ‘armée’!) thanks to Gallic Books’ wonderful translations of his books. The first two were utterly charming, funny, yet touching and romantic novels, positioned just on the right side of whimsy – you couldn’t fail to enjoy them. The third, French Rhapsody, which I reviewed here, had more of the same, but also an interesting hard edge underneath, commenting on the state of the French nation.

Now Gallic Books have published a fourth, and this one is darker still. However, The Portrait was actually written before the other three, being Laurain’s debut novel in French.

Laurain’s trademark style of anchoring his story in an object, like the hat, notebook and cassette tape respectively in his other three, is firmly established here too – with a mysterious portrait being the key this time.

Pierre-François Chaumont is an inveterate collector. He started young, at school with novelty and scented erasers, writing in his diary:

‘It’s a collection if you have two and are looking for a third.’

That phrase was to become my motto.

His late Uncle Edgar fuelled the youth’s passion:

‘If we’re to make a real collector out of you, there’s one thing you must understand: objects, real objects,’ he said, wagging his finger for emphasis, ‘carry the memory of their past owners.’

Now 46, Pierre-François is browsing his favourite auction house one lunchtime, when a painting catches his eye:

Sixty centimetres by forty. An eighteenth-century pastel in its original frame, of a man wearing a powdered wig and blue coat. In the top right-hand corner, a coat of arms I couldn’t make out. Yet it was not the coat of arms that grabbed me, but the face. Transfixed, I could not tear my eyes away from it: the face was my own.

Pierre-François buys the painting, already obsessed by it. His long-suffering wife and friends can’t see the likeness, which only makes Pierre more determined to discover its provenance, its history, and put a name to the man in the painting. The key is in the coat of arms, which belong to an old family in Burgundy.

Pierre-François leaps into his Jag and drives east from Paris, leaving his old life behind. Arriving in the village of Rivaille, he stops for a coffee:

I got out of the car and took some deep breaths of fresh air. It’s only when you’re in the countryside that you notice how polluted, stale, and, worst of all, stupefying the air in Paris is.

What he isn’t prepared for is the prodigal welcome he gets. To tell you any more detail would spoil the fun of this short novel, but when presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Pierre-François seizes it, and transforms his life accordingly. There has to be payback for this though, and there is a hint of a Faustian compact and Wilde’s Dorian Gray in Pierre-François’s later predicament, as his obsession for the portrait turns into a kind of possession by it.

At a mere 128 pages, The Portrait demands to be read in one sitting. Laurain is able to build a complex psychological portrait of the life of an obsessive collector in which emotions are channelled into things rather than people. For most of its length, The Portrait breezes along, but as the prologue suggests, you’ll find darkness within.

Such are the skills of Gallic’s translators, there is never a word that jars, and we can only hope that Laurain keeps writing more of his wonderful novels, and that we get to read them in English.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Antoine Laurain, The Portrait (Gallic Books, 2017) ISBN 9781910477434, paperback, 128 pages.

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