The Portrait by Antoine Laurain, Jane Aitken (translator) and Emily Boyce (translator)

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The Portrait by Antoine Laurain, Jane Aitken (translator) and Emily Boyce (translator)

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Yet another superlatively enjoyable little treasure from France's best current purveyor of same.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 112 Date: June 2017
Publisher: Gallic Books
ISBN: 978 1910477434

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Meet Pierre-Francois. He should by rights be an antiques dealer, as he made a fortune selling on his first collection (of erasers) while at school, and funded both his university and carnal education, with prostitutes, by trading too. He is, however, a patent and intellectual property lawyer, and his wife is forever demanding a reduction in the space his collections take up in their flat. But he still dabbles – although this latest visit to the showrooms will cause a lot of unexpected incident. In amongst the grot at a low-key sale he finds an ancient pastel, showing himself – a bewigged, antique version of himself, even if, however, nobody else sees the connection between Pierre-Francois and the picture's subject. Still, as an effeminate uncle told him, real objects carry memory of their past owners – and Pierre-Francois is intent on finding the truths behind those memories. Little does he know just what he will discover…

After three wonderfully enjoyable novels in translation, it's great news to know that his publishers have turned to the beginning of Antoine Laurain's output to keep us sated. But this is no mere juvenilia. Yes, he was working in antiques at the time, but this isn't the mere result of being told to 'write what you know'. Instead the whimsy and the determination of a true collector are grafted on to a story that could take us to obsessive heights, but shows a populist storyteller's talent from the get-go. I loved, for one example, the understandable-yet-complex structure of the first half here, where we get keyed up for one piece of mystery, then get the whole flashback given to us, and in a first-person narrative that really does make us like Pierre-Francois, even if he says the worst things out of sexual frustration.

Yes, this is populist stuff – and even though Laurain has progressed in the ten years since to social and political commentary in amongst his fable-like legends of modern life, he has maintained an excessive level of readability. There are certainly beginner's quirks here – an early dream sequence sticks out like a sore thumb by not being revisited, and our hero gets to be too manipulative towards the end. But there is also a huge problem with the narrative – mainly if our hero looks like someone, then surely someone (a someone who would definitely be sought, what's more) looks like him? This is completely ignored by the plot here, but actually I felt inclined enough to go with the flow and not let that worry me too much. It does have to count as a half-a-star demerit against proceedings, however.

But there remains very little here to besmirch the oeuvre of a distinctive, clever and enjoyable author, one who by his youth promises to be around with us, delighting us with unusual narratives, strong humanity and high drama, for many books to come. I'm awaiting the two missing ones – his sophomore and third efforts – eagerly, as there's no book seven on the horizon just yet. Laurain's output has often provided us with the charm of the coincidental. Such as? Well, a certain auction house presented this novel with their annual prize – and of course it's the same auction house as is mentioned in the plot. For showing us a world where serendipity can be so entertaining, and normally so heart-warming, Laurain is my favourite. This loses some of the romance (I'll say no more) but has all of the pleasant story-telling I've come to expect. Recommended.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Executioner Weeps by Frederic Dard and David Coward (translator) has a theme not too far removed from the book in question, but takes it even closer to obsession, with very readable results.

Buy The Portrait by Antoine Laurain, Jane Aitken (translator) and Emily Boyce (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Portrait by Antoine Laurain, Jane Aitken (translator) and Emily Boyce (translator) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Portrait by Antoine Laurain, Jane Aitken (translator) and Emily Boyce (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Portrait by Antoine Laurain, Jane Aitken (translator) and Emily Boyce (translator) at Amazon.com.


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