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Danièle Sallenave: La vie fantôme (Phantom Life)

He (Pierre) is a school teacher in a French provincial town. He is nominally happily married to Annie. They have a son and a daughter. After a brief bit of rebellion when he was young, he has become a conventional person, doing well at school and getting a good job. However, he is having an affair with Laure. She is a librarian, never been married. Indeed, when she sees married couples, she is not attracted to the idea. While he carries on with the affair, she is not entirely happy with it. It seems to be run by Pierre. It is he that phones her. She never phones him. Not only it is he that phones her, it is he that ends the call (I have to go), never her. (This is in 1976, well before the days of mobile phones.) Though they have a regular time to meet in her flat and have sex, there are times when he will phone her up unexpectedly and she has to abandon whatever other arrangements she has, to see him and have sex with him. Even though these arrangements may be trivial, such as lunch with her friend Ghislaine, she finds it mildly annoying. She did once try a bit of rebellion. One day, a day that she was meant to leave the library early to meet him, she deliberately stayed late, to the surprise of her colleague, and missed him. He left her a worried note. She has not done it since.

The affair has been going on for four years without any indication of it ending or progressing. There have been problems. How do they contact one another when they are away on holiday in the summer, he with his parents-in-law, she with her parents? They tried occasional writing and phone calls but it did not work. Laure, for example, had written to him poste restante but he was unable to pick up the letters, driving everyday past the post office but always with one or more of the family. Finally, out with his father-in-law, he said he was going to pop into the post office. His father-in-law offered him stamps but he declined and went and got his letters. His father-in-law, who had had an affair himself in his younger says, worked out what was going on. The father-in-law is not the only one who knows. Laure has, of course told Ghislaine but Pierre gradually tells others. For example, he manages to arrange a business trip to Belgium, where he will nominally being staying with a friend but will, in fact, be staying in a hotel with Laure. The friend has to cover for him, which means lying when Annie phones. He tells his former schoolteacher and a younger colleague. It seems only a matter of time before Annie finds out.

The entire book is about the ins and outs of the affair, with a bit of back story about both of them, in particular their earlier romances. Pierre had married early and had had a couple of flings after marriage. Laure had had only a few dates. Laure gets concerned when he somehow brings his marriage into their relationship. For example, when he brings her flowers, and she learns that he has picked them from our garden or when he mentions what he does with Annie. However, she frequently tries to imagine what he is doing when he is not with her. Both of them have sort of settled into a way of doing things. Pierre had already been conservative. Très vite, et sans s’apercevoir véritablement, Pierre s’était établi dans un état d’acceptation simple, et de consentement à la vie ordinaire [Very quickly, and without really realising it, Pierre had settled down into a state of simple acceptance and of adopting an ordinary life.]. Laure was not very different. En apparence, en effet, Laure accept tout: les conseils de ses parents, ceux de ses professeurs. Elle s’attire peu de réprimandes, étant une élève honorable… Ce qu’on ne sait pas, c’est ce qu’elle pense vraiment: en particulier, si elle accepte toutes les consignes sans murmure, est-ce parce qu’elle les approuve ou parce que qu’elle trouve bien inutile de lutter contre elles. [Laure seemingly accepts everything – the advice of her parents and her teachers. She is rarely reprimanded, as she is well-behaved pupil. What people do not know is what she really thinks, in particular, whether she accepts all instructions without any objection because she agree with them or because she does not think it worthwhile objecting to them].

However, there are differences. Laure does not like too much structure in her life, yet it is imposed on her by Pierre and his situation. She wants the advantages of a romantic relationship – sex, passion, love – but not the disadvantages. However, she does miss some things. Do you realise, she says, we have never had breakfast together? In a typically male misunderstanding, Pierre replies that he doesn’t do breakfast, just grabbing a cup of coffee on the fly. For Pierre, it is about excitement, which means sex and passion, something to take him away from his humdrum life with Annie and the children and his job. Sallenave very skilfully dissects this relationship – its whys and wherefores and where it is (and is not) going. It is an ordinary extramarital affair in every sense of the phrase but, at the same time, Sallenave’s examination of it makes us think of it differently, not least because we do see both sides of the story.

Publishing history

First published in French 1985 by POL
First published in English by Pantheon Book in 1989
Translated by Lydia Davis