A Life On Paper: Stories
 by Georges-Olivier Chȃteaureynaud

translated by Edward Gauvin

Small Beer press
2010, hardback
First collection published in English

"When Orne heard that several automated firing squads had been set up around town, he ws unimpressed. Of all the innovations constantly being introduced to the surroundings, how many turned out to last? ...How would the use of an automatic firing squad - one that you used yourself - ever catch on?"

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

The first emotion that this wonderful collection of stories inspired in me was shame: shame that our insular English-speaking world has only now taken upon itself to translate this French literary giant. The man has been writing for 30 years, has scooped numerous French literary awards - what were we waiting for? For him to decide to abandon his native tongue and write in ours? Well, thank goodness for Small Beer Press, now he doesn't have to and we don't have to struggle with our high school French.

This beautiful hardback book - with a fairly forbidding image of the author on the front which belies the wonderfully odd and playful nature of his writing - collects 23 of his stories, the shortest only two pages, written between 1974 and 2002. I dove straight into the stories without reading the introduction by Brian Evenson, avoiding anything that my prejudice my first experience of a new author.

My second thought, after the shame I mentioned above, was about the language. I began reading the first story, with lines like "In reality, whether mold or oxide, its true nature eludes us. Does it not assail stone and slag alike? ...So unerring is it that old men's complexions often imitate its taint" and I had to stop. I was puzzled. This is a newly-published book but is this a writer long dead, writing in the 19th century? Or is the translator taking liberties with language? Well, neither. This is the tone that Chȃteaureynaud often chooses to write in, old fashioned, formal, ornate, and it distances you a little from the text but in a pleasing way. It's the tone of a faintly sardonic narrator and the author often wrong-foots you by slipping in something more colloquial. I am the kind of reader that enjoys being wrong-footed and once I'd settled down into the language I began not to notice it and to focus on the stories.

While at the end of each is the date and place where they were written, the stories are not arranged in chronological order and on second read I saw how wonderfully and subtly one links to the other. They deal with the gamut of human experience: love, death, identity, friendship, past, future, time...There is something faintly magical in the first story and this gives the reader the delicious expectation in every story that anything is possible.
Chȃteaureynaud doesn't disappoint.

To give an example of the way I believe the stories are ordered, Icarus Saved from the Skies, about a young man who is deeply unhappy about sprouting wings ("In my place someone else might've rejoiced at what seemed to me a catastrophe. After all, if I'd wanted at any price to rise above the human herd or leave my mark upon the world, I certainly could've.") is followed by The Only Mortal, another story about bodily mutation in which a soldier posted to a distant land finds a word rising up on his skin after an affair with a local woman:
"Francois knew - his skin knew - that it wasn't a tattoo. First of all, a tattoo didn't change. You had it, you kept it... His own was constantly changing. The six letters that made up the word 'Mortal' got bigger or smaller, clearer or blurrier, went from dark to light blue, and sometimes almost green, according to his feelings at a given moment."
These two are excellent examples of how these stories combine the mundane with the fabulous:
Icarus Saved from the Skies is not really about having wings, it is about marriage and what one partner will do for the other; The Only Mortal deals with the nature of war. They grapple with these issues in an utterly unique Chȃteaureynaudian fashion, which is refreshing, entertaining and often hard-hitting.

Two neighbouring stories riff on the issue of going back home. The Gulf of Years uses time travel to tell the poignant tale of a man going back to the few hours of his childhood before his mother was killed in a bombing raid; The Dolceola Player has the title character returning to his childhood town to discover that his long-lost love has killed herself and his friends expect him to resort to drastic behaviour. There is no moral here, no ultimate answer to the question "Can you ever go home?" but an exploration of the topic from  original and fascinating angles.

If I were to try and sum up a theme of
Chȃteaureynaud's work - and it is always tempting to do this when faced with a collection that spans 30 years - I might venture that he puts his characters in situation where they face the unexpected in the familiar. Perhaps this is too simplistic, perhaps this is what great fiction always does. But two stories in succession led me to this: Sweet Street, in which a longtime taxi driver is asked to drive to a street he has never heard of in his hometown and which he can never find again, and The Bronze Schoolboy, which suddenly accosts the main character with a museum in his hometown devoted entirely to his life.

Neither of these stories - in fact no story in this book - ends predictably. Some readers might find the endings wanting, too open perhaps, but I found them beautifully satisfying in their lack of firm closure. One of my favourite stories, Ecorcheville, from which the quote at the top of the page is taken, begins with the shocking revalation of the introduction of automated firing squads for which you pay by credit card, an easy route to suicide. The story delivers on this promise but in an utterly unexpected way, and the final image it leaves you with - a man chasing a gray parrot - is so surprising, so poignant and so right.

This is definitely one of my favourite books of 2010, it delighted me with its wit and imagination, and will, I hope, inspire others to go beyond our English- speaking world.
Chȃteaureynaud has published many more short stories, I hope A Life on Paper is just the first translation - and an excellent translation it is! - of his work.

Read a story from this collection on Cafe Irreal

Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. She is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty, Bristol University.

Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"

Davy Byrnes Stories

Janice Galloway "Collected Stories"

Peter Orner "Esther Stories"

Seán Ó Faoláin "Selected Stories"

"The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"
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Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is the author of nine novels, two young adult novels, and over one hundred short stories. Despite a lifelong fear of flying, he has been to Peru—his only time on a plane—and lived to pen a travel memoir about the experience. He is the recipient of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle (for short stories), Prix Giono, Prix Valéry Larbaud, and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. His work has been translated into fourteen languages.
   In 1983 and 1990, Châteaureynaud was a representative of the Foreign Services Ministry to Quebec and then to Greece. He has been consistently involved with the Centre National du Livre and the SGDL (Société des Gens de Lettres de France). He plays an active part in fostering new talent, serving on the juries of such diverse prizes as the Fondation BNP-Paribas Young Writers Award, the international Prix Prométhée de la nouvelle, the Prix Renaudot, and the Prix Renaissance. Châteaureynaud sees his enthusiastic participation in these institutions as a way of repaying the literary community that has allowed him the luxury of dedication to his craft. An Officier des Arts et Lettres of France, he is currently the editorial director of foreign literature at Editions Dumerchez. In 2006, he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

Edward Gauvin has published Châteaureynaud’s work in AGNI Online, The Southern Review, Conjunctions, Harvard Review, Words Without Borders, LCRW, Postscripts, Epiphany, The Café Irreal, Eleven Eleven, Sentence, and The Brooklyn Rail. A graduate of the Iowa Workshop, he has received a Fulbright grant as well as fellowships from the Centre National du Livre, the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) and the Clarion Foundation and residencies from the Maison des Écritures Midi-Pyrénées, Ledig House, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.  A consulting editor for graphic literature at Words Without Borders, he translates comics for Archaia, First Second, and Tokyopop.

Read an interview with Georges- Olivier Chateaureynaud