Le Tiers Temps: homage to Beckett and Joyce
Maylis Besserie’s writing is characterised by attention to rhythm of the French language
Maylis Besserie. Photograph: Francesca Mantovani / Editions Gallimard
Le Tiers Temps is Maylis Besserie’s first novel. Its title comes from the name of the retirement home where Samuel Beckett lived out the last year of his life. The retirement home is located on rue Rémy-Dumoncel in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris; once the village of le Petit-Montrouge, it was annexed as the city extended southwards, incorporating the neighbouring faubourgs.
The fourteenth, and its neighbour, the sprawling fifteenth, were home to the working classes, who laboured in the nearby factories and slaughterhouses. These proletarian districts of Paris were also home to a community of artists, writers and musicians. They lived cheek-by-jowl with each other on narrow streets and insalubrious flats that are a far cry from the bourgeois elegance of Haussmann’s splendid boulevards. Beckett’s success enabled him to move northwards, fleeing the noisy rue des Favorites for the rue St Jacques, the scholarly fifth arrondissement and the Latin Quarter.
It was fitting, however, that he should return to the down-at-heel fourteenth at the end of his life. As Besserie herself underlines, it was as if Beckett had come to live in one of his own stage productions, peopled with strange, unhinged individuals, waiting for the end of days.
Maylis Besserie works as a producer for the radio channel France Culture and Le Tiers Temps is filled with voices. In the first section of the book, we hear Beckett himself. His voice is distilled in daily entries which the reader perceives initially as notes in his diary. By the end of the section, we realise that the words are in Beckett’s own head, reflections on his increasingly fragile existence. This Beckett is playful, rueful, aware of the dramatic irony that has brought him to live in the room next door to Winnie, surrounded by grotesques like Hamm or Lucky, abandoned by his wife Suzanne who died before him.
The intensity of this voice is punctuated by reports written in the clinical language of the medical professionals that tend to him. Nadja, the nurse, describes her patient’s physical state, his courtesy and his desire for autonomy. Sylvie, the nurse’s aide, outlines his meals: mushroom soup, pureed vegetables, poached cod. Unsurprisingly, the patient frequently leaves his meals untouched. He eats alone and takes no part in the activities organised for his fellow residents, preferring to walk in the afternoon to the Place d’Alésia. He is visited in the evening by his friends, continues to smoke and drink alcohol. The inclusion of the cool medical voices provide a counterpoint to the virtuosity of the Beckett voice.
Besserie wanted to write a novel about old-age. Its physical vicissitudes. Its little humiliations. She consigns the decay to the medical terms: bradykinesia, postular instability, muscular rigidity. These labels cover falls, an increasing inability to write, a loss of autonomy. The Beckett voice carries these preoccupations lightly. It is salted by black humour, ensuring that reading the book is always a pleasure. Besserie also delights in Beckett’s bilingualism and plays back and forth between the francophone and anglophone properties of language, working on the phonetics, segueing between one language and the other. She summons James Joyce too, and has her Beckett reminisce about evenings the two spent together singing, talking and drinking.
The text is also studded with songs and poems. In the closing pages we read a lullaby in Irish. While for the most part Besserie has situated the novel in 1989, the final year of Beckett’s life, she has also incorporated elements from the assault in 1938, when he was stabbed with a knife in the fourteenth arondissement. Using newspaper reports written at the time, she has pieced together a police-report written in very credible jargon, adding yet another layer to the text.
Besserie’s connection with Ireland started when her family sent her from her native Bordeaux to spend summers in Ireland learning English. Her attachment to the country was prolonged in her exploration of Irish literature. She has devoted radio programmes to Joyce and Beckett. Her novel is a natural sequel to this dialogue between France and Ireland. It bears the traces of the intensive research lightly; it was fuelled by her thrice yearly visits to the country. Much of the novel was written in the library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais. Besserie availed of the centre’s extensive documentation, but she also wanted to keep the hum of Irish voices in her ear as she wrote the book.
It is important to emphasize that Besserie does not attempt to pastiche Beckett. Her writing is characterised by an attention to rhythm and an awareness that French writing today is not florid or showy. She mines this self-imposed simplicity, playing with sentence length, making use of repetition, exploiting the musical qualities of the French language. If her book is a homage to Beckett and Joyce, it is also a hymn to the possibilities that the French language offers to those who seek solace and refuge in it.
Le Tiers Temps won the “Goncourt du premier roman”, the prestigious French literary prize for first time novelists, just before the country went into lockdown. Besserie is now planning a further two novels that will explore the links between Ireland and France. For the moment, the translation rights for her novel have been much in demand: Portuguese, Arabic, Albanian, Serbian, Farsi, Japanese and Chinese editions are in the offing. Needless to say, English language publishers are also intrigued by this new star of the French literary world.