Book Review : "The Most Beautiful Book in the World," by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt




If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them ... 
they could perceive what they have made of us.

-- Albert Camus

"The Most Beautiful Book in the World," is the first collection of novellas by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, the beloved French author, playwright and the widely-acknowledged master of shorter fiction. First published in 2006, the English edition saw the light of the day due to the collective efforts of Europa Editions (then, a small independent Italian publishing house who wanted to bring quality European literature to the US shores) and Alison Anderson, herself an author and master translator.

Schmitt recounts the period that led to the birth of this book -- his contract with a movie studio forbade him from writing while he was directing a movie. Naturally, in his own words, "that was too much of a provocation" and he sneakily put to paper these stories that had marinated far too long in his mind. Perhaps it is this search of an accomplishment that unconsciously streams into the protagonists in these stories too - for every story, and every character, seems to be a search for something - happiness, fulfillment, closure, recognition... Everyone emerges a different person through their lives, loves, dreams, and failures too.

The collection begins with the wonderfully fresh "Wanda Winnipeg," the tale of a successful socialite who finally finds an obtuse way to repay a debt she owed to the man who made her the woman she is today. This story showcases initial seeds of Schmitt's evocative style of describing his characters through their experiences, and allowing the experiences to create their physical picture in the minds of the readers.

The second novella "A Fine Rainy Day" is a humorous, yet touching homage to the perfectionist within all of us. I believe there is a very fine line between desiring perfection in what we see, and finding perfection in what lies before us. Schmitt argues that one is merely a transposition of the other, and the search for perfection can lead us to surprising places, sometimes right in front of our eyes, other times within us.

A woman spies an older woman moving about in her apartment in the next tale - "The Intruder." Scared by the encounter, she calls the police for help. The police investigation reveals nothing, but the woman keeps appearing intermittently, rearranging the woman's life and possessions. Part-mystery, part-romance, and part-reflection-on-accumulation-of-a-Life, this story is perhaps the one with the most poignant moral -- sometimes, our search for answers may not yield anything at all, for we are blind to the answers that lie right in front of our eyes.

 In the most straightforward narratives in the collection, "The Forgery," a painting that may or may not be the titular object becomes a battleground between the past and the present, between love and scorn, between naïveté and cynicism.

What ails a beautiful, intelligent, and wealthy woman who, according to everybody around her, has "Every Reason to be Happy?" She has money, time, a loving and caring husband, and is unencumbered by the daily grind of children and livelihood. Her secret is a terrible truth about herself that she and her husband have tried hard to put behind them, she with limited success, and he with (an apparently) determined effort. A chance encounter in an upscale hairdresser's studio puts into motion a series of events that make her question her entire life. She finally understands that although her personal life is often held up as a gold standard of happiness, the notion of being happy is a very individual state-of-mind, and no two people, even if they are a married couple, aspire for the same kind of happiness.

"The Barefoot Princess" is a tragic tale of fleeting love, the kind that stays forever. A washed-up actor revisits the town where he spent an enchanted night with an enigmatic, beautiful, slightly eccentric woman of noble birth. Known to him only through her nickname, his journey in search of that one night reveals the real woman behind the mask. This story encapsulates a character trait that Schmitt would put to use with greater effect in his future works -- the desperate drive to live a full life, given that this life cannot be lived fully.

"Odette Toulemonde" is based on a real-life encounter from the author's life. A famous author encounters a plain, uninteresting woman during one of this book signing events. He brushes off the encounter with ease, unaware of the effect his writings have had on the life of this woman. Their second encounter, almost an year later, however, sets into motion a love affair that can hardly be described as normal. The story unfolds with a languid grace as the tables turn over, and the student and teacher exchange roles, almost unnoticeably. Odette also feels like Schmitt's most autobiographical story, with the narrative employing a meta-narrative element at one juncture that points to the very collection that contains this story. The effect is deftly accomplished without coming off as a worn out cliche. It is about the most tender definition of love, for the time in life when all material pleasures have gone past their novelty.

The crowning finalé of this collection is the story which lends its name to the collection - "The Most Beautiful Book in the World." Set in the dreary world of Siberian gulags during the reign of Stalin, this story shatters the rosy castles of superficial romantic love, and then proceeds to build a simple shrine that is built with care, love and most of all, simple pragmatism. The women of ward 13 are faced with a singular dilemma -- What should they write to their daughters using only three pages of paper that can stand the test of Time? Schmitt's solution is at once pragmatic, cute, and profoundly delicate in the way that only a mother-daughter relationship can be.

The stories do show some signs of an author exploring his style -- they are not big on plots (some are very predictable), but consider the personalities that inhabit these worlds, and their experiences, more important.

This is a very beautiful book of stories - most beautiful indeed!









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