Laurent Mauvignier: Histoires de la nuit (The Birthday Party)
This novel is set primarily in and around a small French hamlet, interestingly named Three Lone Girls. Nobody seems to know why it is so named though it is indeed remote. The nearest, not very large town is La Bassee (La Bassée in the French original). There are three houses and four human inhabitants in the hamlet. One house is empty. In one of the others, there live Patrice Bergogne, his wife Marion and their young daughter Ida. Patrice had grown up in the house, which had belonged to his father and, before that, his grandfather, both violent men. His two brothers had been happy to get out as soon as possible and, when their father died, for Patrice to buy them out. Patrice is a farmer but he struggles to make a decent living and is constantly in debt.
Like many young men in the area Patrice had gone to the local dance hall and tried to tempt a woman to dance with him or accept a drink from him. Most refused. Those that did not refuse, normally had a tale of woe about some other man to recount. Gradually, all of the others of his age were married off and a new, younger generation appeared. He stopped going to the dance. One relationship petered out when he refused to have a sperm test. He is now married to Marion but it is not a particularly happy marriage. Marion works late most nights and while he tries to woo her with presents he can ill afford, things are clearly not perfect.
The other house is occupied by Christine, an elderly artist. She used to come regularly for holidays with her husband until one day she showed up for good, this time without a husband in tow – what she’d done with her banker husband was anyone’s guess. She has cut herself off from the art world . When she paints she forgets that she’s also supposed to play the artist who’s successful at selling her work. She looks after Ida when she comes home from school and her two parents are both working.
At the beginning of the book, we learn that Christine has been receiving anonymous threatening letters, slipped under her door, not coming by post. She has reported these to the police but there is little they can do. They were talking about burning orange-haired witches, after all, about cleansing the world of crazy women who’d be better off staying where they came from. She suspects that the letters are from a woman, perhaps a jealous wife as Christine has played around. We do know that Marion and Christine do not get on particularly well but there is no major animosity.
Christine is currently painting a picture of a woman in red which she keeps thinking she has finished but then realises that she has not. Ida does not like it.
So we have the scene set. On the surface, things seem relatively smooth but, clearly, all is not perfect in the hamlet – Patrice’s debts and not entirely happy marriage. Marion having problems at work with her boss, Christine out of touch with her market and her relationship with Marion and the anonymous letters.
The French title of this novel is Stories of the Night but the English title is The Birthday Party. This reminds us of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and the similarities between the two works are not limited to the title. The birthday in question is Marion’s fortieth and the other three plan to make it a good one. Marion will bake a cake. Patrice will buy her a good present and Patrice and Ida will decorate the house and prepare a fine meal. They will even invite Marion’s colleagues/best friends. A few minor issues occur. A man arrives at the house and tells Christine that he is looking at the empty house and waiting for estate agent to show him the house. She knows and tells him that there is no estate agent. Patrice goes into town to get the present and food and is detained by two incidents. Christine’s dog seems to have disappeared. By the time Patrice returns, things are already getting out of hand.
The second part of the book is the eponymous (in English) birthday party. Like the first part of the book, Mauvignier gradually builds up the pressure. It starts off badly and then we slowly but surely see things getting worse – much worse. Of course, while reading it we are continually wondering who will do what to whom and, in particular, why. As is not unusual in novels, the past suddenly rears its ugly head in a decidedly unpleasant way and leaves all the major characters, including a few late arrivals, in a far worse situation than they were at the beginning.
Mauvignier’s great skill in this novel is gradually building up the tension. The book is over 500 pages long and the birthday party takes up about half of the book, which, in the hands of many authors, would have been a lot shorter. Small incidents, confrontations and, often, the various characters waiting for something to happen, for someone else to do something all add to the tension. It is superbly done but not for the faint-hearted.
First published in 2020 by Les Editions de Minuit
First English translation in 2023 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Daniel Levin Becker