flapped paperback

The Birthday Party

Laurent Mauvignier

Translated by Daniel Levin Becker

Published 18 January 2023
French paperback with flaps, 504 pages

I.

She watches him through the window and what she sees in the car park, despite the reflection of the sun that blinds her and prevents her from seeing him as she’d like to, leaning against that old Renault Kangoo he’s going to have to get around to trading in one of these days – as though by watching him she can guess what he’s thinking, when maybe he’s just waiting for her to come out of this police station where he’s brought her for the how many times now, two or three in two weeks, she can’t remember – what she sees, in any case, elevated slightly over the car park which seems to incline somewhat past the grove of trees, standing near the chairs in the waiting room between a scrawny plant and a concrete pillar painted yellow on which she could read appeals for witnesses if she bothered to take an interest, is, because she’s slightly above it, overlooking and thus observing a misshapen version of it, a bit more packed down than it really is, the silhouette, compact but large, solid, of this man whom, she now thinks, she’s no doubt been too long in the habit of seeing as though he’s still a child – not her child, she has none and has never felt the desire to have any – but one of those kids you look after from time to time, like a godchild or one of those nephews you can enjoy selfishly, for the pleasure they bring, taking advantage of their youthfulness without having to bother with all the trouble that it entails, that educating them generates like so much inevitable collateral damage.
    In the car park, the man has his arms crossed – robust arms extending from stocky shoulders, a thick neck, a prominent chest and a tuft of very straight chestnut hair that always makes him look unkempt or neglected. He’s let his beard grow, not too thick a beard, no, but it doesn’t suit him at all, she thinks, it only accentuates his air of gruffness, that impression he never fails to make on people who don’t know him, also giving him a more peasant-like look – she couldn’t say what a peasant-like look actually is – the image of a man who doesn’t want to leave his farm and stays there, literally cooped up, scowling like an exile or a saint or, all told, like her inside her house. But for her it’s not so bad, she’s sixty-nine and her life is rolling quietly towards its end, while his, he’s only forty-seven, still has a long way to go. She also knows that behind his gruff exterior he is in fact sweet and thoughtful, patient – sometimes probably too much so – and has always been obliging with her and with the neighbours in general, at any moment he’ll lend a hand, of course, without a second thought, to anyone who asks, even if it’s her he readily does the most favours for, like he’s doing today by driving her to the police station and waiting to take her back to the hamlet so she doesn’t have to ride her bike for something like seven kilometres both ways.

Bergogne, yes.
    Even when he was a kid, she called him Bergogne. It happened simply, almost naturally: one day she addressed him by his last name to tease him; this amused the child and it amused her too, all because he often imitated his father, with that serious and furrowed look children sometimes have when they act like responsible adults. He was flattered, even if he didn’t really pick up on the hard, ironic edge she took when she called his father by his last name, because often it wasn’t so much to compliment him as to unleash a scathing comment his way or treat him the way an old schoolmistress scolds a kid, addressing him as sharply as possible. She and Bergogne senior argued readily, as a matter of habit, as one does among friends or close classmates, but anyway that no longer matters – thirty years, maybe forty? diluted in the fog of time passing – and none of it ever really mattered anyway, because they’d always been close enough to speak their minds candidly to each other, almost like the old couple they’d never become but had nonetheless, in a sense, been – a platonic love story that never found the space to play out, even in their dreams, for either of them – in spite of what the acid-tongued and the jealous might have insinuated.
    It had remained after the father died: Bergogne. His last name for speaking to his son, to this particular son and not to the two others. Since then, if it’s been without the slightest irony, just force of habit, it would still be with that same tone in her voice, at once harsh and with a hint of superiority or authority of which she wasn’t even aware, when she called him to ask him to pick up two or three things for her at the Super U if he was passing through town, or to take her if he was going – a town, imagine calling it that, that village with its population of three thousand – but also with the sweetness of childhood he sensed behind her words,
    Bergogne, I need a ride,
    as though she were murmuring in his ear my little one, my boy, my kitten, my treasure, in a fold hidden within the coarseness of his name or that of her voice, in her way of saying it.
    She used to come spend holidays here in a very elegant old house on the riverbank, and everyone looked at her like a grande dame, vaguely aristocratic but above all vaguely mad – a Parisian artist, exuberant and batty – wondering just what kind of peace she expected to find here, in La Bassée, reappearing as she did more and more often, staying longer and longer each time until one day she showed up for good, this time without a husband in tow – what she’d done with her banker husband was anyone’s guess – come to settle down with some of his money, no doubt, even if nobody knew why she’d decided to bury herself in a dump like this when she could have settled some place in the sun, at the seaside, in regions that were more hospitable, milder, less ordinary, no, on this point nobody could say, they just kept wondering, because even if they’re fond of their region people aren’t stupid enough to not see how banal and ordinary it is here, how flat and rainy, with zero tourists to combat the boredom wafting from its trails, its streets, its waterlogged walls – and if not why would they all have dreamed at one point or another of getting the fuck out?
    She’d said it was here and nowhere else that she wanted to live and age and die – let the others keep the Tuscan sun, the Mediterranean and Miami, thank you very much. She, crazy to her core, had chosen to settle in La Bassée and hadn’t even wanted to buy or visit any of the three handsome houses in the centre of town, which looked like surprisingly decent faux manor houses, in the grand style, with turrets, exposed beams, timber frames and dovecotes, outbuildings. No, she had wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, saying repeatedly that for her nothing was better than this nowhere, can you imagine, in the middle of nowhere, in the sticks, a place no one ever talks about and where there’s nothing to see or to do but which she loved, she said, to the point that she finally left her old life behind, the Parisian life, the art world and all the frenzy, the hysteria, the money and the parties they imagined around her life, to come and do some real work, she claimed, to grapple at last with her art in a place where she’d be left the hell alone. She was a painter, and the fact that old Bergogne, the father, who sold her eggs and milk, who killed the fatted pig and bled it to its last drop in the courtyard, who spent his life in rubber boots covered in shit and animal blood, caked with soil in the summer and with mud the other eleven months of the year, that he, who owned the hamlet, should become her friend, this surprised people, and, bizarre as it seemed to those who wanted to suspect an affair, if only to make the whole thing imaginable and comprehensible, no, it had never happened, neither had ever shown the slightest attraction to the other, not the slightest amorous or erotic ambiguity, until one day he sold her one of the houses in the hamlet, making her his neighbour, further fuelling the rumours and speculations.

 

(...)

Buried deep in rural France, little remains of the isolated hamlet of the Three Lone Girls, save a few houses and a curiously assembled quartet: Patrice Bergogne, inheritor of his family’s farm; his wife, Marion; their daughter, Ida; and their neighbour, Christine, an artist. While Patrice plans a surprise for his wife’s fortieth birthday, inexplicable events start to disrupt the hamlet’s quiet existence: anonymous, menacing letters, an unfamiliar car rolling up the driveway. And as night falls, strangers stalk the houses, unleashing a nightmarish chain of events.
  Told in rhythmic, propulsive prose that weaves seamlessly from one consciousness to the next over the course of a day, Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party is a deft unravelling of the stories we hide from others and from ourselves, a gripping tale of the violent irruptions of the past into the present, written by a major contemporary French writer. 

The Birthday Party is a strange and marvellous thing: a thriller in slow motion. The tension builds so patiently that you almost miss it, with the result that when shocking events occur it’s too late to turn away. This is a dark and discomfiting work of beauty and violence, made all the more disturbing by its idyllic setting.’
— Jon McGregor, author of Lean Fall Stand

‘This is a tension-ratcheting novel in which, over the space of a single day, the past breaks brutally into the present. There are shades of Joyce and Faulkner, but Mauvignier’s writing is entirely his own: in lyrical, digressive, shapeshifting narrative, Mauvignier merges psychological depth and penetrating character study with the relentlessness of a cold-blooded thriller. A triumphant, genre-crossing book.’
— Patrick McGuinness, author of Throw Me to the Wolves

‘[R]emarkable ... Readers whose tastes run to the pacey thrillers of James Patterson may find their patience frayed by the glacial progress of this quasi-Proustian noir. But if the beer god had meant everyone to drink Miller Light, he wouldn’t have given the Belgian Trappists all those rich recipes. A compelling blend of mystery, horror, and suspense.’
Kirkus starred review

‘One of France’s most talented writers.’
France Today

‘It is truly a great book: enthralling, impressive and fascinating in its literary methods.... I was totally captivated by its sentences that build up pleasure, terror and anxiety, their long, slow rhythms that create its dynamic and tension just as much as the situation itself.’
— Jean-Claude Raspiengeas, Le Masque et la Plume

‘What matters, as always in Mauvignier’s work, is giving a voice to the voiceless, the worthless, the unloved, the humiliated, even if this is done with unprecedented violence. For on this isolated farm where the drama is played out, the aggressors and the victims are more alike than we might think. All of them settle their scores with a destiny that has wronged them.’
— Jérôme Garcin, BibliObs

‘[I]t is Mauvignier’s writing, his undulating sentences, that makes this novel an exceptional work, and elevates this forgotten France to the rank of literary subject.’
— Sylvie Tanette, Les Inrockuptibles

‘Each of his books produce the same shock; the shock of the magnificence of his language, which, like a tidal wave, slices its sentences in the middle of a line, then lets them crash onto the page; the shock of the force of his characters torn apart by trauma, dragged into a rush of events beyond their control ... The Birthday Party is a thriller about the pretences that coat every life.’
— Martine Landrot, Télérama

Laurent Mauvignier was born in Tours in 1967. He gained a degree in Fine Art from the École des Beaux Arts in 1991, and published his first novel, Loin d’eux [Far from Them], in 1999. He has since written numerous novels, including In the Crowd (2006), The Wound (2009) and Continuer [Carrying On] (2018), all published by Éditions de Minuit, and is the winner of eleven literary prizes, including the Prix Wepler and the Prix Amerigo-Vespucci. He is also a playwright and has written scripts for TV and film. The Birthday Party is his first book with Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Daniel Levin Becker is the author of Many Subtle Channels and What’s Good, the translator of books including Georges Perec’s La Boutique Obscure and Eduardo Berti’s An Ideal Presence, and the youngest member of the Oulipo.