“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”
- Susan Sontag
A plain pensioner in Brussels, Geneviève Grenier née Piastre, receives a strange visitor in the form of a lawyer who brings a most unexpected news — that she is the sole heir to a gentleman from Brussels - M. Jean Daemens. The only problem - she has never even heard of this person in the eighty years of her life. So begins an unexpected adventure for this normally passive, timid woman. Being warned that the legal heir inherits both the assets and the debts of the deceased, she decides to gamble for the first time in her life, and accept this offer. But who is Jean? And why would he leave his entire estate to her, an unknown, simple woman?
The mystery unfolds entirely in flashback, and forms the backbone of the opening tale in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s collection of short-stories “Invisible Love.” As befits the name, the stories in this collection centre around the theme of a love that is seldom made explicit, and in some cases, remains undetected, though its impact may last over lifetimes. Schmitt’s oeuvre famously explores connections between individuals, and is romantic, but not mushy; bittersweet but not tragic, and strongly affecting, though not action-packed. In the author’s own words this collection of stories shows the “virtual lives that lie in the background of real lives.” Every tale in this collection includes a virtual presence, sometimes living, in-the-flesh, sometimes as a stream of memories or even as people who manipulates lives of others (for better or worse) but never reveal themselves to the subjects of their affections.
“Two Gentlemen from Brussels” opens this collection with a fictional account of two parallel couples inspired by true-life events. The big mystery of this love story is not “why” but a “how” - the unique relationship between Geneviève and Jean is revealed in the first part of the story itself, but the journey their respective families take to arrive at the present is by far the more intriguing portion of the story. This story is perhaps the most important, not only due to its length
but for the detailed treatment that the author provides to this idea of virtual lives - beginning with virtual surrogacy to virtual motherhood to eventually, virtual consummation of the love.
“The Dog” is a story of survival. The survival not only of the human body ravaged by horrors inflicted by fellow-humans, but more so of the human spirit against the ravages of Time and adversity. A doctor in a small town keeps a dog, a Beauceron called Argos. When the dog is killed in a hit-and-run accident, the man is distraught with grief and takes his own life five days later. His daughter and a writer, a new arrival in town, and whom the doctor had uncharacteristically taken a liking to, get together to solve the mystery of his suicide. This journey into the man’s past shows them a life that they never experienced with him.
“Mènage à trois” is a wonderfully sweet and short tale of one man’s love for his wife, and his obsession over her first husband. Based loosely on true-life events (but including the real-life people), this tale depicts the central theme of the collection most prominently through layers of virtual lives surrounding actual ones. The man lives in a virtual life, looking at his lover through the eyes of her first husband, while the woman lives an actual life based on the virtual life desired by her second husband; and, to complete the threesome, lives a virtual life with her first husband, as seen through the eyes of her second. The tale is a delightful description of a common conundrum in romance - the free expression of one’s feelings towards the one we love. The husband finds an oblique way to build a monumental homage to his love (and we should all be thankful to his efforts today!) because he is unable to put his affection in the right words.
“A Heart Under Ash” is a harrowing account of love that loses its way under the ash of hatred, but finds redemption when the very love is about to be taken away forever. It follows the lives of two women Alba and Vilma, who believe they have both lost more than their respective children recently, and their search for answers behind the thick fog of bureaucracy and rules. The lost children seem to reach out from beyond their graves and govern the lives of these women, leading them on a very dangerous path of obsession and hate. Where one finds redemption through her never-lost love, the other buries her love under the ashes of those memories. The title is also a very clever play on the locale where the climax unfolds.
The last tale in this collection is called “The Ghost Child.” A couple, very much in love, chooses to not have a child with a congenital disorder in order to spare the child from the bleak future predicted by the doctors. This memory of a child that they never had throws them apart initially. But their pragmatism and love for life leads them to become even better lovers, until a chance encounter with a bright, lively twenty year old girl with the same disease shows them the other side of their decision - the virtual life that their child never had.
Schmitt handles the interplay of the virtual and actual lives with a deftness that displays a very canny judgement of the human condition, especially when faced with adversity. The lives that never were, that could have been, or that may be living, all flow in and out of the narrative in a seamless fashion that is the hallmark of his style. The book is translated by Howard Curtis, and he ably carries the lyrical prose of Schmitt into English.