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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dinner with Guillaume Musso

Guillaume Musso is a French literary sensation. His novels have sold 11 million copies world-wide. The French print-run for his latest was 400,000. He's big in South Korea. An anonymous kind of guy, he bashfully recounts that while paying for things with his credit card, it's not unusual for the sales assistant to gasp: 'The writer?'

To all of which a British reader is likely to say 'Who? Eh? What?' Unless they've been on the London Underground recently, in which case they may have seen one of the posters for his latest, Where Would I Be Without You? A woman in jeans walks away from us along a beach towards a hazy blue horizon. Nice image, but enigmatic. So what's the deal with Guillaume Musso?

As you might expect from the figures, this is commercial fiction. As I've written before in this blog, this can be a contentious distinction to make from literary fiction. Green is a different colour to yellow, but you can get from one to the other by infinitesmal additions of blue. There will always be a middle range where you could call it either way (and it doesn't make sense to say that green is better than yellow). John Banville is yellow; Jackie Collins is green; Sarah Waters is greeny-yellowy. And Musso is as vert as you can get.

My first thought on beginning the novel was maybe this would read better in French. I was puzzled as to why there needed to be two translators (Anna Brown and Anna Aitken). He's not Flaubert, that's for sure.

'The young flic was feverish with excitement. That night, he was going to arrest a famous thief, the kind a flic comes across once in his career. He had waited a long time for this moment and he'd replayed the scene over and over in his head. Interpol would be green with envy, as would all the millionaires Archibald had robbed.'

Interpol would be green with envy? Further down on the same page we get 'Martin's heart raced'. We're going on a cliche hunt! The art-loving cat-burglar villain 'really is a master of disguise'. The Velib (Parisian free bicycle) Martin uses in a low-speed chase, 'must have weighed a ton'. Surely not?

'Paradoxically, the police knew almost nothing about Archibald McLean - neither his nationality, nor his age, nor his DNA.' Really? No clue whatsoever about his nationality? Even when he says things like: 'For a moment there, you overestimated your strength, laddie?'

If it isn't obvious enough, Archibald also drives the very Aston Martin that James Bond drives in Thunderball and Goldfinger. Handily it still has 'machine guns concealed in the indicators... a mechanism that poured oil or nails onto the road and retractable blades to slash the tyres of any pursuing cars...' They weren't just props, then? Of course Archibald is planning One Last Heist.

The young French cop Martin Beaumont turns out to have more personal links with the art-thief than he suspects. They date back to his youthful romance in San Francisco with an alluring young woman, Gabrielle ('With her long straight hair and her green eyes flecked with gold, she looked just like Francoise Hardy'). The labyrinthine plotting requires their reignited affair to be artificially hindered by numerous misunderstandings, but fundamentally the dilemma is a sound one: Gabrielle must choose between two people who equally deserve (or don't deserve) her loyalty; Martin must choose between personal and professional satisfaction.

One thing becomes clear: Musso (who's a nice guy, by the way) is absolutely sincere. This is full-strength, heart-on-sleeve, shiny-eyed storytelling, not a cynical bid for massive sales, and therein lies its considerable charm. The Parisian scenes are stylish and thrilling, and although most of the book is set in the United States (Musso, who is in his early 30s, moved to New York age 19, and sold ice-cream to support himself), there is a refreshing European flavour to the adventure. It's hard not to warm to a thief who bags 'the original manuscript of Une saison en enfer' inscribed 'a P. Verlaine, A. Rimbaud'.

But the real secret to Musso's success, I suspect, lies in a particular aspect of his backstory. At 24 he came close to death in a car accident. This led to a personal metaphysical enquiry: consequently his novels overlay the genres of thriller and love story with a veil of the supernatural. In Where Would I Be Without You? the otherworldly element comes late but is thoroughly effective, and, despite the whopping coincidence it involves, rather moving.

For such a soppy romantic, it was not a surprise to learn that Musso is himself blissfully happy. Although, he pointed out, his wife is not entirely satisfied with his current regime of spending only one week out of three with her in Paris, then returning for two weeks to Antibes, his birthplace, to write.

I'm not sure this rather ploddingly translated novel (at least, I assume the French is sparkier) will be the one to break him in the English market, but it's a refreshing enough beach read. In the original I can see it being excellent language practice for anyone learning or brushing up their French.

'Where Would I Be Without You?' is published by Gallic Books (£7.99)

1 comment:

  1. Great blog, Suzi. I found you after a nudge from Paul Burston.