Florian Zeller: Artificial Snow
One of the pitfalls of reading literature in translation is that some authors see their work, if they see it all, come to the English language in a chronology all of their own. Artificial Snow (2002) was Florian Zeller’s debut novel, but it’s the last of his four to be translated and published. Reading his book, therefore, has almost been an exercise in regression. Having started with the mature and satisfying, The Fascination Of Evil, we now find ourselves back when the author, in his early twenties, was learning his trade and was style trying veer off from Kundera to a style all his own.
Artificial Snow, like Zeller’s recent novel, Julien Parme, is a coming of age novel, although it has more in common with his second, Lovers Or Something Like It, in that it deals with young Parisians caught up in the foibles of love, relationships, and their own self-importance. The last of these is exemplified when Zeller makes the decision to include himself in the novel:
Florian was a strange guy. He was twenty-one and a bit. Quite a bit. His life had been turned upside down by one incident and he’s never been the same again. When he was ten, during one of his experiments, he’d poked a piece of wire into an electric socket while holding it in his mouth. […] It was feared he’d lose the power of speech but, after intensive care, the only after-effects were a fierce desire to write books and a weird hairstyle: his hair seemed to be permanently crystallised on his head like untidy stalagmites.
Zeller, author of the novel, opens with a section titled ‘Boring prologue’ that reflects the disaffected nature of himself, which in turn sets the mood for the book itself:
Everything seemed terribly boring: getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, pretending not to pretend, shaking hands, being polite and romantic, studying and getting good marks, everything. I even found the prologue of the novel I was trying to write after a fashion tragically boring. But, then again, deleting it was even more boring.
From here we move into the narrator’s story, which begins with him missing his train on the Metro. It’s a fine, if obvious, metaphor that foreshadows the main plot of the novel – that of relationships being like trains, where you hop on and off as life dictates. The train the narrator has missed was to take him to a party which carries some importance to him: Lou is going to be there (“In my dreams, she called me “my darling”; in reality, she didn’t call me at all…”) and he’s quite interested in getting back together with her after a brief relationship a few years before, even if it goes against all he believes in:
We’d spent a few nights together at the time and I didn’t like the idea of doing something I’d already done before. I felt that repeating things was always proof of failure. Getting back together with a girl was like admitting you hadn’t found anything better since, it was like admitting you’d reached your sexual peak somewhere between fifteen and sixteen; that sucked.
Even if the narrator would prefer not to go back, his love for Lou snowballs into obsession, so much so that he finds himself following her, maintaining a distance, and seeing his love melt when she doesn’t notice him, kisses another lover. When it looks as if all hope of reconciliation has faded, there seems only one solution: to wreak terrible acts of violence on her, to kill her. However:
The best crime, the best revenge, was to cheat on her, cheat on her as much as possible, defile her memory with fleeting moments of pleasure.
As far as story goes in Artificial Snow, there’s little of it, with Zeller preferring to relay a few events, presumably autobiographical, given his own inclusion in the novel, and to reflect on them, preferring philosophy over plot. While some of his lines are a tad simple (“making love and fucking are two very different things”) there’s still an invigorating energy running through the prose that skips past these, like them or not, and leads straight in to the next. Also, following the narration can be a little difficult at times, what with Zeller narrating in addition to his narrator, who just so happens to have a recurrent friend called Florian Zeller? Are the two Zellers the same? It’s foggy, but the openness of it is a welcome ponderable.
Shakespeare provides an epigraph at the start of the book, one that recurs later in the prose, saying where goes the white when melts the snow? Zeller’s snow is that of childhood, those crisp sheets of memory that we play over in our mind but can never return to. Here, the white turns to sludge, something tricky for the narrator to pull himself out from but altogether necessary for growing up. In writing Artificial Snow it seems a vessel for Zeller to grow up in. Later books show that it worked.
December 4, 2008