Gary Shteyngart ‘Lake Success’

Chatting was his primary activity. The office was overrun by quants and other assorted math geniuses, half their staff now seemed to flow from MIT or its less-endowed counterparts from around the world, while wide-shouldered, charming Princetonians like Barry were left to handle the big picture of yearly separating guys named Ahmed of the Qatar Investment Authority from 2 percent of the assets Barry managed. He did that by talking to them in the broadest, most backslapping former-athlete way possible. All of those hours practicing his “friend moves” in front of the mirror back when he was at Louis Pasteur Middle School had finally paid off. “Friendliest dude on the Street,” some young bro had once called him.

In Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, Barry runs his own investment fund and is a multimillionaire, lives in Manhattan with other investment bankers, has a beautiful and intelligent wife and a young son, but Barry, the “Mentor” to other up and coming capitalist sharks sees his life unravel as his son, who still doesn’t speak, but continues to scream at three years old, is diagnosed with autism, and as the FBI are closing in on him for insider dealing. Barry’s fund had invested in a company making essential medecin more expensive thus pricing the poor out of medical care. Nostalgic, selfish Barry, echoing a road trip from his early twenties, takes off on a greyhound bus to rediscover “America” and its people, meeting the poor who travel on greyhound busses. He passes by Baltimore, for instance, where he discovers the neighbourhoods featured in “The Wire” only to understand that it has become a tourist attraction and that narcotics have long since moved on, technically and geographically.

The events take place in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections and the fear that Trump could actually win. We discover Barry as having been an adolescent unable to feel part of society and to relate to people but who worked hard to train himself in small talk and smiling which took him to where he is today. He still has trouble controlling his rages and has worked on this with his shrink, becoming a collector of expensive watches:

Whenever he felt this out of control, when the world lurched around him and his own body felt counterfeit, he remembered what his shrink had told him: “Look at your watch.” He looked at his watch. It was a Nomos Minimatik with a champagne-colored dial. Nomos was his new thing. They were not expensive watches, they topped out at 20K, but they were made in the tiny German town of Glashütte, far from all that overpriced Swiss razzle-dazzle, and they stuck to a strict but playful Bauhaus aesthetic. The watch did its work. It calmed him.

Shteyngart also takes us on a visit of the seriously rich in Manhattan, where wealth can be measured by the difference in floors between two apartments in a building. Eventually the road trip ends and life must go on. What has Barry learned from his trip? Will he be a better person? Will he give up investment banking to do “something useful”?

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First Published in English as “Lake Success” in 2018, by Hamish Hamilton.
Translated into French by Stéphane Roques and published as “Lake Success” by Les Éditions de l’Olivier in 2020

The quotes as read in French

Le bavardage était sa principale activité à lui. Le bureau était envahi par les analystes quantitatifs (ou quants) et autre génies des maths, la moitié de leur personnel semblait désormais tout droit sortie de MIT ou de ses équivalents internationaux moins bien pourvus, tandis qu’il revenait aux anciens de Princeton comme Barry, aussi charmants que large d’épaules, de prendre de la hauteur pour mieux délester chaque année tous les Ahmed de l’Authorité d’investissement du Qatar de l’équivalent de 2% des actifs gérés par Barry. Il y parvenait en se livrant aux plus grandes démonstrations d’amitié possibles, digne de l’ancien sportif qu’il était.

Chaque fois qu’il sentait que cela prenait des proportions incontrôlables, que le monde convulsait autour de lui et que son corps lui donnait l’impression d’être une contrefaçon, il se souvenait de ce que lui disait son psy: “Regardez votre montre.”
Il regarda sa montre. C’était une Nomos Minimatik à cadran champagne. Les Nomos était son dada. Elles n’étaient pas chères, coûtaient tout au plus 20 mille dollars, mais étaient fabriquées dans la petite ville allemande de Glashütte, loin de tout le clinquant suisse hors de prix, et s’en tenaient à une esthétique Bauhaus aussi stricte que ludique. La montre tenait son rôle. Elle le calmait.

Agnès Desarthe ‘The Chance of their Lifetimes’

She speaks English. At least she had learned it at her Lycée. But today she realises, now that they will be here for a year, maybe, in a country where it is spoken, that she knows it very little. She muses that there is the same difference between the language that she thought she knew and that spoken here as between a middle aged woman as she wakes in her worn nightdress, her feet in her husbands oversized slippers, and the same woman with her face made up, her hair arranged and wearing high heels. She asks herself which of these two women resembles the English she had once learnt in her lycée.***

The story opens with Hector, Sylvie and their fourteen year old adolescent son Lester flying from Paris to North Carolina where Hector has obtained a teaching post for one year, which could maybe be prolonged at a local university. The story told in the third person concentrates on Sylvie, and tells of Lester and Hector as observed by Sylvie. Sylvie had married Hector, quite a bit younger than her, and from a relatively well off bourgeois family where the wife was not expected to work, in moving from Paris and her life to North Carolina where she knows no one, Sylvie becomes introspective, firstly thinking about her life to date, playing on her age relative to Lester’s:

She has more or less decided to be her son’s grandmother. It wasn’t her idea, but that of a woman on the bus….”Hey young man”, the woman had said, leaning towards Lester, you are lucky to have such a young granny”….Of course Sylvie didn’t lie to the administration, nor on the forms to be filled out for the school or the town hall. It was only during informal encounters, at the park, at shows, with people she didn’t know and wouldn’t meet again,that she used this version of their relationship. She didn’t refer to Lester as “my son”, she said “my little one” or “my boy.”***

And then on her imagined difficulty in communicating with the world around her, as illustrated in the opening quote. We follow Sylvie as she initially gets lost in the streets in which she lives where she has no reference points and as she eventually finds a means of expression through a pottery class. In parallel her charismatic son gathers around himself all of the marginal pupils at his school that are excluded from the usual groups and who follow him almost like a religious leader without any of their, much to occupied parents noticing. And her womanising husband doing much the same with the female teachers at the faculty. All of this to the background of the Paris terrorist attacks.

There are two awakening calls, the first as the plumber unblocks the washing machine pipes to find they are blocked by a large number of intertwined condoms and in trying to ease her suspicions tells her that they’re maybe her son’s. As she realises what this discovery means, she feels something agreeable as it explains a number of incongruous observations, such as the cutlery not being in its usual place. The second is when the varying neighbours, noticing that their children can no longer be reached on their cell phones, discover the influence of Lester on their children and take the children’s explanations of being touched by Lester literally.

This is a slow moving introspective study of Sylvie and how the choices she has made in life have shaped her and of her hidden inner strength.

First Published in French as “La chance de leur vie” in 2018 by L’Éditions de l’Olivier.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle parle anglais. Du moins a-t-elle appris cette langue au lycée. Mais elle se rend compte aujourd’hui, à présent qu’elle s’installe pour un an, peut-être, dans un pays où cet idiome circule, qu’elle ne la connaît que très peu. Elle songe qu’il y a la même différence entre la langue qu’elle croyait maîtriser et celle que l’on parle ici, qu’entre une femme plus toute jeune, au réveil, vêtue d’une chemise de nuit usée, les pieds dans les savates trop grandes de son mari, et la même, maquillée, coiffée et chaussée d’escarpins. Elle se demande à laquelle de ces deux femmes ressemble l’anglais appris autrefois au lycée.

Elle a plus ou moins décide d’être la grande-mère de son fils. L’idée n’est venue d’elle, mais d’une femme dans le bus….”dis donc mon bonhomme”, avait lancé la dame en se penchant vers Lester, tu en as de la chance d’avoir une mamie aussi jeune”….Bien entendue, Sylvie ne mentait pas à l’administration, ni sur les fiches à remplir pour l’école ou la mairie. C’était seulement lors des rencontres informelles, au square, au spectacle, face à des inconnus qu’elle ne reverrait jamais, qu’elle avait recours à cette version de leur filiation. Elle ne désignait pas Lester en disant “mon fils”, elle disait “mon petit” ou “mon garçon.”

Jakuta Alikavazovic “Progress of the night”

In some ways it was true. There was nothing between them, img_1396but then again it was false, once everything that takes place with time had taken place something unalterable remained.***

In this award winning book from 2018 read for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, Alikavazovic studies opposites, how people at different ends of the spectrum can be attracted, attracted and at the same time repulsed (an attempt here at copying her writing style, affirming something and then it’s opposite in the same sentence, illustrated by the opening quote). The characters and the writing style reflect these opposites, opposites highlighted by their similarities. Take for example the main protagonists, Paul and Amélia, both orphans on their mothers sides, one rich, one poor, both architecture students, Paul  working as a night porter in a hotel, Amélia as a mysterious rich student  living in the hotel. They meet and live a fusional relationship:

I’d give everything to be like you, i’d give everything to be you ― but Paul knew that there was a difference between unlearning something that we know and never having known it.***

Their architecture lecturer Albers is a specialist of cities and the night, a subject they see from opposite viewpoints, for her, night would represent a violence that would grow out of control, for him, night was a subject to be tamed, controlled. Albers turns out to have been a very close friend of Nadia, Amélia’s mother, who had left  Amélia as a baby and had gone to Sarajevo just before and during the siege, where she had disappeared. She was unable to go through with her life and ignore the unfolding tragedy, she had to feel it, she was an artist and needed to be involved. Albers on the other hand, a theorist, did not feel the need to become involved. Albers theorising the city in dislocation, Nadia living the destruction of the city. It would take Albers’ vision and understanding to see what was happening between Amélia and Paul:

It was obvious that they would be, one for the other, the perfect lover. And that a person with more experience, Albers or another, should have been able to feel something worrying, an almost mechanical inevitability of the pleasure which would sometimes, for both of them or at least for one of the two of them be a nightmare.***

Amélia leaves him abruptly one day and disappears for ten years, spending this time ostensibly looking for her mother in Sarajevo whilst actually looking for herself, discovering that after the destruction of the city, (and her mother), the people want to rebuild the city as it was, to forget the violence which she cannot. She marries a young Serb who under her influence becomes an artist fighting against the will of the people to forget the seige, the recent past, taking actions such as splashing the streets with red paint. Alikavazovic theorises:

And what if art was the contamination of an experience, the inoculation of an experience, not lived yet experienced.***

When Amélia returns, Paul has become rich, as an architect he has become a specialist of …windows, and with her father’s help then sets up as a security specialist, in a way to protect against the night, selling amongst other things a thick walled safe people can hide in to escape danger. Once again seen from a certain perspective she living the essential, searching, feeling and yet back with no answers and he understanding the fear of the people in the city yet working at and living from the futile:

He never knew what the light was like, nor the strange dissociation that sets in between he who sees everything whilst experiencing nothing and he who experiences everything without doing anything, without being able to do anything, and are one and the same person.***

To finish my write up, they have a child, Amélia leaves soon after to go from war zone to war zone and a new cycle sets in as eventually their child leaves to seek out her mother. A difficult, hard, yet rewarding read.

First Published in French as “L’avancée de la nuit” in 2017 by Editions de l’Olivier
*** My translation

The original quotes before translation

D’une certaine façon c’était vrai. Il y avait rien entre eux, mais d’une autre c’était faux, une fois qu’était passé tout ce qui se passe avec le temps il restait quelque chose d’inamovible.

Je donnerais tout pour être comme toi, je donnerais tout pour être toi — mais Paul, lui savait qu’il y a une différence entre le fait de désapprendre quelque chose que l’on connaît, et celui de ne jamais l’avoir su.

Il était évident qu’ils seraient l’un pour l’autre de parfaits amants. Et cette personne plus expérimentée, Albers ou une autre, aurait pu pressentir là quelque chose d’inquiétant, une inévitabilité presque mécanique de la jouissance qui serait parfois, pour les deux ou au moins pour l’un des deux, cauchemardesque.

Et si l’art est la contamination d’une expérience, l’inoculation d’une expérience non vécue et pourtant éprouvée

Il ne sût jamais comment était la lumière, comment était la dissociation étrange qui s’installe entre celle qui voit tout sans rien éprouver et celle qui éprouve tout sans rien faire, sans rien pouvoir faire, et qui sont une seule et même personne.