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Anne-Marie La Fère: Le semainier [The Semainier]

A semainier – there seems to be no obvious English translation – is a set of seven drawers for storing your weekly linen by day (semaine is the French for week). The heroine of this novel uses it for other storage purposes. The novel starts off with an official announcement of the death of Anaïs Clément, director of a theatre called Théâtre Réseau (= Network Theatre), which specialised in a multimedia approach to theatre, i.e. incorporating not only drama but song, dance, music, art, the written word and cinema. The next part is the unofficial testament of Anaïs Clément and is mainly concerned with the contents of her semainier. We learn that drawer one contains diaries and a book her mother had started of her life when born (and had apparently abruptly stopped); drawer two contains copies of manuscripts; drawer three contains travel-related material (photos and brochures); drawer four contains letters, primarily from her father and from her fiancé, whom she later married and later divorced, though also from other correspondents; drawer five contains other photos and postcards; drawer six contains a film script and the first four chapters of a pornographic novel she wrote with her cousin Colette and drawer seven contains other manuscripts. Much of the novel is concerned with finding out who Anaïs Clément really is but, fascinating though she is, we soon find out that the investigator is far more fascinating.

The rest of the story is told by the unnamed narrator, interspersed with excerpts from other source material, primarily documents found in the semainier. He has qualified as a lawyer but has not made a successful career. By his own admission he has often been late for appointments and has generally not done well. Though he does not mention it as a problem, we do note that he spends a lot of time in bars, drinking at least two glasses of heated wine each time. He now makes his living doing odd jobs for another, more successful lawyer, Mr. Barak, and he has been given this assignment to go through the material in the semainier and find out more about Anaïs Clément as well as personally return the various letters to their senders. He lives on his own in a dingy flat with plumbing problems. He admits that he has never had success with women and never goes to prostitutes. His life is involved with his books and records. His mother had had great hopes of his becoming a successful lawyer but, fortunately, has not lived to see her son fail. What makes him so fascinating is that he is a completely unreliable narrator, running off into the realms of fantasy. Indeed, with virtually everyone he is planning to meet to return letters to or to interview, he has wild fantasies about what the meeting will be like. For example with the cousin, Colette, who has worked as an anthropologist in Mali, he imagines that they go off together to Africa and have a passionate affair. He carries on this fantasy for much of the book.

Our narrator gradually digs deeper into the life of Anaïs Clément. He has suspicion that her death might not have been an accident. She wrote the unofficial testament on 21 December, was seen at a dinner party on the 23 December and was killed when her car crashed into a telegraph pole on 25 December. He suspects that it might have been suicide or even murder. He gradually tracks down details of her life, such as the fact that she and her manager did not always agree on the direction the theatre should take, or her involvement, like that of her creator, in the May ’68 events in France and the Situationists (it should not be forgotten that one of the key Situationists – Raoul Vaneigem was Belgian). He finds out that Anaïs and Colette were adopted names the cousins created for themselves when they were writing their pornographic novel (their real names were Antoinette and Chantal). (We get to see the chapters they had written and it is very mild lesbian/dirty old man soft core porn.)

Gradually, of course, our narrator falls in love with the dead woman and his fantasies move from Colette to her. But is La Fère’s skill to make him the key character, however much our interest in Anaïs and her life becomes. He remains a cantankerous, somewhat pompous, bitter aging man but he is also a very funny and skilful creation. Sadly, this book is unlikely to ever see the light of day in English as it has long since disappeared even from Belgian bookshelves.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by Jacques Antoine
No English translation