“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Ernest Hemingway’s fabled micro-story, allegedly the result of a $10 bet over lunch that he could write a novel in six words, pares a tragedy to its bare bones. What the American author shows with his elliptical brilliance is that whole worlds and lives and futures, or lack thereof, can be condensed into a sentence.
The French writer Emmanuelle Pagano's latest book Trysting sets out to do likewise on the topic of relationships. A series of vignettes charting moments of emotional truth, it brings the reader on a rollercoaster ride of the highs and lows of love. The micro-stories – sometimes a line, sometimes a page or two – read like prose poems, as unnamed individuals unite, prevail or part.
The stories are snapshots of predominantly heterosexual relationships, with variations including pieces about the longing and loneliness of a gay man, or the synchronised periods of female friendships. From love and desire, to loss and rejection, Pagano mines her lovers' lives for nuggets, delivering for the most part compact scenes that offer moments of recognition. Objects, gestures, smells, emotions – Trysting is a mosaic of the myriad things that define a relationship.
Many of the stories read like snippets from overheard conversations: “He wanted me to sign my name on the postcards he wrote to his friends, his family, even his beloved old mum.” A woman struggles to meld her life with her lover: “One night I shut myself in the storage unit and have a good, proper cry, screaming and howling as our city never lets us do.”
Some of the most impactful pieces are one-liners: “Each time I see him our bodies gently unlace their ligaments, unfasten their joints.” Happiness creates suspicion in another lover’s mind: “Life with him is so easy and sweet and joyful. I have a feeling he’s cheating.” Elsewhere, a rather chilling voice gives another perspective on love: “Desire for her made me stronger, a good deal stronger than her.”
As with the Twitter fiction of recent years, the form of the stories gives momentum to the collection. The eye is constantly drawn to the next piece, a hypnotic feeling of “just one more”. Pagano has a way with opening lines that drops us into her stories: “The police said it was probably a voluntary disappearance.”
Other pieces are less interesting – a woman commenting on her lover’s daytime breathing, another complaining about being woken up at night, a man forbidden from joining his wife in the garden – or merit more unpacking, such as the woman who leaves her cheapskate lover in his budget hotel. Where does she go, even for that one evening? It is the form rather than the stories themselves that gives the collection its energy. The episodic nature makes it a good choice for a Christmas stocking, easy to dip into after dinner as you try to drown out your own loved ones.
Some of the longer pieces, particularly on physical intimacy and loss of self, recall Joanna Walsh's debut Vertigo earlier this year, with the strongest vignettes in Trysting reminiscent of the micro fiction of Lydia Davis. Pagano has published over a dozen works of fiction, which have been translated into German, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish. Her 2007 novel Les Adolescents troglodytes won the EU Prize for Literature. Trysting is her English language debut, deftly translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis.
The tenderness of love comes through in stories that show a man tucking his partner into bed after she’s fallen asleep studying, or another who spritzes his newspaper with water to stop the pages from rustling, or most affectingly, in tales that feature partners caring for each other in terminal illness.
While the highs of new love are profiled, rejection and pain are a more central focus. There’s the lover abandoned because she isn’t “up-to-date”, the ex-boyfriend who breaks into his former girlfriend’s house, the confirmed bachelor who used to be happy in his own company, but “since she left there’s only silence.”
The pain that occurs when love ends is a recurring theme. A woman cries so much that marks appear under her eyes, “two little purplish bulges where the blood vessels had burst”. Another story sees a woman move back into her family home near a level-crossing. There are echoes of Simon and Garfunkel as she burrows down: “I’m safe inside my house, my time marked out by the regular vibrations. The barrier keeps me safe.”
Just as we’re wondering why we bother to fall in love at all, Pagano reminds us through her thoughtful reflections that there’s always another glimmer on the horizon: “What do you call that feeling, just like nostalgia except about the future? The regret, the longing to rediscover something you haven’t yet lived through?” Or failing that, a chance of happiness with a friendly control freak: “He presented me with a diary in which my whole life is set out, because, he says, otherwise you’ll never be able to manage your life.” Tinder figures should soar.