14th Nov 2012
Monsieur by Emma Becker
From a title that conjures up Gallic mystery, to a book cover suggesting a certain type of abandonment, to the blurb that enthusiastically sets this up as the female opposite to Lolita…you might expect something a little heady, a little glorious from Emma Becker’s Monsieur (translated here from the French by Maxim Jakubowski, and, rather interestingly, titled Mr. in its original version).
Ah, but expectation is at the root of all suffering.
Charting the rise and (perhaps, inevitable) fall of a Parisian affair between a twenty-year-old student and a married surgeon, Monsieur is billed as the other side of Lolita’s coin; a delicate, in-depth story of a girl and her illicit feelings for an older man.
Sadly, these are heights that are never quite reached. Beginning with a chase via Facebook, Monsieur is disappointingly cliched. The pacing is off, there’s an explicit lack of tension (sexual and otherwise) and the way supporting characters flit in and out of the pages of Ellie’s affair makes it difficult to care about any of them. At all.
Monsieur rehashes the age old Whore/Virgin trope, but the Ellie’s innocence feels as contrived as the pair’s first meeting. Which, by the by, is brought about through a brief bit of Facebook stalking on her part, an in-family connection to the married monsieur and a ‘shared love’ of erotica. You have to wonder why a ‘relationship’ between a young woman in her twenties and a silver fox is supposed to be so shocking (in France too, of all places!), and how innocent Ellie is really supposed to be when she casually flings around the names of the several men she’s also sleeping with in order to ‘get over’ the allegedly tantalizing Monsieur.
Taking Becker’s age into account and the fact that Ellie seems to be the author very thinly-disguised, Monsieur is a lot like reading the self-absorbed diaries of a university student with a penchant for older men and a graphic memory. A good two thirds of the book is given over to the slow, selfish collapse of a relationship that never really was, and you get the sense of how boringly self-absorbed Becker’s central narrator is. Add to this florid and occasionally laughable prose thrown tortuously across the page and you’re left with something that might as well be read like an old holiday bonkbuster: skip to the sexy times, devour them, leave the rest to your imagination. Quite frankly, it would probably be a more interesting read that way.
Other recommended reading… Try The Sexual Life of Catherine M , French art critic Catherine Millet‘s genuinely scandalous account of a her sexual history, or, for a classic, subtle and intelligent look at the gradual and torturous disintegration of a forbidden relationship, try La Princesse de Clèves, first published in France in 1678.