Illustration by Loveday Pride
You’ve no doubt fathomed that I’m rather partial to a book. Over the course of my column, I have several times professed my limitless love for them, even talked about the magic of typewriters and, by extension, the magic of books themselves. The key selling point of any book is its connection with its readers, and that can be achieved by relatability – by seeing yourself or part of yourself in the book you’re devouring. Antoine Laurain, a French author of such works like The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat, explores this idea in a novel way (if you’ll excuse my pun 😉) in The Readers’ Room. Because it’s one thing to see yourself in a book… but what if the book is you and your life?
The Readers’ Room is a whodunnit mystery blended with Laurain’s typical Parisian chic set in the publishing world. We follow Violaine Lepage, an editor at a leading publishing house in Paris, who, after recovering from a coma caused by a plane crash, finds that one of the house’s newly published authors has written a book that is shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Man Booker Prize. There are, however, three twists: the first is that no one knows who the author is and how to contact them, the second that the early life of Violaine, a notoriously private person, is what has been immortalised in the book’s pages, the third that the murders predicted in the book are taking place in reality also. Intrigued? That is the correct reaction.
Several elements of this story are sinister, but there is something inherently disconcerting, and even frightening, in the way Violaine’s life is laid bare for the whole world to see, read, and discuss. And while she is not explicitly named, her own recognition of the past she has sought to forget. So, if we compare Violaine’s situation with a reader’s, there is a line that separates the reassurance of associating with a character and the horror of, without your knowledge, knowing, nor consent, to see your life publicly displayed and at the mercy of an unknown writer.
The act of reading a book is a very private affair. You are alone. You form an intimate connection between the words and your thoughts, between the events and your experiences, between the characters and your understanding of yourself. You get lost in the world the author has created and in doing so get lost in your own world of imagination. The intensity of connection is, as I see it, one of the reasons books can elicit strong and poignant emotions in its consumers. In seeing a reflection of a facet of your life, you might feel bolstered in knowing someone else, even if they’re fictional, has gone through a similar thing. You might read on to discover what they do next to inform what course you should take. Most of all, you understand that as a creation of the author, if you can empathise with a character, then the author can empathise with you. The symbiotic relationship between author and reader therefore establishes a solidarity and universality of experience that has the power to bring people together from all walks of life, from all over the world. It’s beautiful.
As an author, however, whatever you write can feel very exposing. Even if your writing is not consciously autobiographical, you are nonetheless sharing part of yourself through your words for a large audience. A reader can also feel exposed when reading despite the solitariness of curling up alone with a book. If you unexpectedly recognise one of your traits or experiences in a character, it can be extremely disarming, especially if the revelation that you have about yourself is not a happy one. And, in some ways, the feeling of exposure during an activity you turn to for privacy and solace can feel like a deception. If you can so clearly recognise yourself in the pages, then surely anyone else who knows you must too?
Violaine is robbed of her own agency when her story is published under someone else’s name. Usually this is not the case. Authors choose when to put pen to paper and what they wish to reveal. Readers lay themselves bare to the unknown as soon as they decide to pick up a book and delve into it. In all three cases, however, the potential for learning more about yourself is manifest. And just as how, despite the pain of the past, Violaine’s future benefitted from the unorthodox sharing of her story, so too authors and readers stand to gain maturity and insight by continuing the discussion of the human experience, even if it is somewhat fictionalised. For while life does not always present us with happy endings as in literature, it does always produce some kind of resolution. Don’t be afraid to see your life in a book, whether or not you expected to. Just as when you turn over the final page and close the back cover, whatever you’re going through will inevitably
If reading these books in their original language sets your Francophile heart alight, their titles of the three listed works in French are La femme au carnet rouge, Le Chapeau de Mitterand, and Le Service des manuscrits.