Translators must make do.
This French novel was published in English in 2012 as No One, which is both accurate and entirely insufficient. Its original title, and the title I will use in this review, is Personne.
As a noun, French personne is equivalent to English person. As an indefinite pronoun, however, personne means no one. The word’s root is Latin persona, which means a mask used in theatre. All three of these resonances are essential to understanding the novel, and there is no English word that captures them all. Reading the last sentence of the novel you understand why they went with No One rather than Person or Persona, but any is insufficient. So for this review, I’m going to use Personne.
The translation otherwise is very readable, as if it had been written in English originally.
Gwenaëlle Aubry, Personne [No One], trans. Trista Selous. 2009 autofiction about the author’s relationship with her father, who struggled with bipolar disorder. Recommended.
Personne is an autofiction based on the journals of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s father. François-Xavier Aubry was a lawyer who suffered from bipolar disorder, and who, if this book is anything to judge by, did not treat his family the best. He kept a detailed journal, which he named The Melancholic Black Sheep. He wrote a note on the front: “To be novelized.” And a subtitle that he crossed out: A Disturbing Spectre.
Aubry blends passages from this journal, from her own memories, and from books and movies in a circuitous yet systematic exploration of her father. She writes poetically and sometimes philosophically.
A word about genre. Autofiction, as explained in Rick Moody’s introduction to Personne, is a “term for the stylized hybridization of fiction and autobiography as applied in contemporary literature.” How much of Personne is real and how much is fiction, I don’t know. What is very clear from the book’s form, though, is that Aubry has shaped the material to fit a scheme.
Personne is remarkably moving despite how strongly Aubry foregrounds the its metafictional elements. The short book has twenty-six chapters, one for each letter. This form makes translation impossible on occasion, such as Chapter E for “Enfant [child].” She calls it “this meaningless order in which I’ve tried to hold his disorder and mine, to smooth out our memories…” These chapters are fragmentary views with a subject determined by the letter. Some of the letters work better than others, but the structure is not so imposing as to draw away from the emotional heft of the whole.
The chapters are mostly short. Events are told out of order, with Aubry circling back repeatedly to particular events or images. She’s searching for who her father really was, while recognizing that both his personality and the disorder that so strongly determined her father’s behaviour meant that he was a multiple person or a wearer of masks without a set person below them.
The triple resonance of the word personne is felt throughout: persona, person, and no one. A persona was a mask worn by an actor; Aubry’s father wears many masks, tries to be many things: “the Prodigal Son and the Spurned Lover, the Clown and the Pirate, the Cop and the Robber, the Monk and the Rake, the Bourgeois and the Tramp, the Sage and the Madman.” Beyond any mental disorder, this was his personality. Aubry is searching for the person who her father was below those masks, but the evidence—journal, memories, intertexts—is inconclusive, as it will always be. She finds no one.
The chapters may be short, but Aubry loves very long sentences. Here’s a taste of the novel’s beauty and its investigative style.
At the end of his life my father didn’t want to be anything. By that I mean he wanted just to be, to take off his masks, cast off his rags, abandon the roles, the characters that throughout his life he had expended so much effort in playing, shed the qualities he had put on one by one, seeking the one that would define him, give him form and content, that would at last turn him into his own statue, a silhouette of marble with clean contours, sharp lines, a person, a complete man, a man of quality, one of those who stride through the streets in the broad light of day without ever wondering why they are themselves and not the shadow that clings to their footsteps…
And that is only half the sentence!
There are numerous intertexts throughout the autofiction, which help Aubry explore her father’s identity. Chapter A is for Artaud, and the novel begins by talking about Artaud, who, like Aubry’s father, was locked up in an asylum and who described, “worse than pain, than eternal hell, the exploding of his real self.” Artaud is also briefly revisited in the beautiful Chapter T for Traitor, which is a sort of eulogy or prayer to her father’s memory:
to the memory that returns, sharp and clear, one sleepless night, of his smell, his warmth, his arms around me when we had to part, those moments when he was, yes, a rampart, strength—when, like anyone else, I had a father
These intertexts also include such material as her father’s lookalikes, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Dustin Hoffman, and her father’s interests, like James Bond. Her father wanted to be James Bond, because “becoming James Bond meant disappearing, slipping out of sight, going back to the rift within himself, hunkering down in its shelter.” The intertexts provide Aubry a type of objective viewpoint on the painful image of her father.
Aubry’s memory is the final source of material. She compares what she remembers with what’s written (or not written) in the journal. Her memories are often painful, but she tries to view her father generously.
I found it hard to recognize the elegant, settled, attentive man who came over to visit me in England, called me all over the world and took an interest in my studies and plans, who behaved like a father, as my own. I didn’t believe in miracles. But sometimes, in certain silences, moments of despondency, I saw the familiar abyss. We didn’t talk about it. And I felt as though, having tried so hard to forget, my memory was now going mad. He didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to know. Or rather, knowledge fostered his great desire to forget.
Personne is a tremendously moving book, “this portrait from twenty-six angles with an absent centre, this portrait in twenty-six others with a self that eludes it.” Aubry’s great achievement is to find the emotional rawness in the balance between three sources of material—journal, memories, intertexts—an arbitrary metafictional structure, and her own deeply considered interpretations.