“How do I love thee?”
What does it mean to love, to be loved? How do we begin to love, why this person and not another? Why do we abandon our loves, betray the ones to whom we have declared our undying devotion? Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting offers insights into the many questions that surround the strange and ever-mysterious workings of our love lives. Boldly wading into waters that have preoccupied poets down the centuries, Pagano gives us a collection of vignettes, short stories, prose poems and one-liners that together form a kaleidoscopic representation of love and lovers in all their multifarious manifestations. Occasionally lyrical, sometimes banal, by turns humorous and heart-breaking, Trysting holds up a mirror to the glories, peculiarities and absurdities of the human heart and its workings.
When I picked up this slim volume and began to read, I must confess I felt some disappointment as I turned the first few pages. I was hoping to plunge into the “novel” promised by the blurb on the back cover. I soon realised however that the lover scratching his stubble and caressing the narrator’s cheek on the opening page would not reappear. There would be no narrative arc, no ongoing interplay of characters, no twists and turns of plot to contemplate in the small hours of the night. Instead, lovers appear on the page – ringing a doorbell, selling calendars, collecting feathers, banging into furniture in a flat that seems too small, chasing storms or scattering rubber bands around the house – only to vanish almost as soon as they have taken shape. Every tale is told in the first person, and with each new narrator, we must start afresh. The reader is left with a feeling, a glimpse of the mysterious alchemy that has taken place between two individuals, that moment or place of trysting promised to us by the book’s title. I adjusted my expectations and understood that this is a book to savour in odd moments, to read and ponder as the occasion arises. I began to read it as I would a book of poetry.
What then emerged from the pages was a dazzling catalogue of amorous encounters in which lovers come together and find their way to an intimate understanding of each other’s oddities. No detail is too strange or too trivial for Pagano’s lovers’ attentions, from toe-nails, shedding hair and other such bodily detritus, to tics and quirks: a lover who chews on bits of wood, another who insists on salting his loved one’s food for her. Lovers are changed, transformed by their attachments: a woman speaks of a seismic shift taking place in her body, a rearranging of all the senses provoked by the loved one’s attentions, another of the aching jaw that results from laughing so much together, the tightening of the skin provoked by happiness.
There is no shortage of eroticism or bodily functions in these pages. One lover declares: Sometimes I want her so much that my legs wobble; another: I used to sniff her all the time. I moistened her all over with saliva to get to know her off by heart. There is the lover’s special smell, her intimate, bedroom smell, her smell mixed with mine, and an adolescent besotted with an older cousin, glorying in the forbidden delight of squeezing spots and pustules on the adored one’s back. A casual encounter leaves a lover in a state of unrequited longing and permanent desire. There are whiskers and nose-hairs, liver spots and blemishes that come with age: Time is pollinating his skin with flowers, with speckles, with stars. The less glamorous aspects of love and intimacy are fully embraced in all their messy splendour, cataloguing the intimate topography of the lovers’ lives.
We read of partings, betrayals, death, desertions and callous abandonment. There is obsessive behaviour, outright stalking, and the sense of disorientation the lover is left with when an all-consuming affair has come to an end. And there is music running through the pages: we hear it with the lover who listens only to the loved one’s fingers drumming on the fret board of the guitar and not the notes produced by the instrument, or as the lover’s skin likened to the skin of a drum, vibrating and resonating at the slightest touch. And of course, there is much tenderness, the warm intimacy of bodies locked in embrace, the lover’s gaze: No one sees what I see when I look at her. The gaze that effaces imperfections, joins up the dotted lines of fragmented experience and allows the man of parts to come together in his lover’s arms.
All of this is beautifully translated in a seamless collaboration by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis. Pagano’s prose has a luminosity in the original French that could so easily have been lost in too prosaic a translation, but this English rendering bridges the gap between the two languages and successfully conveys the full range of voices and registers that make up this beguiling collection of intimate snapshots.
Reviewed by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
By Emmanuelle Pagano
Translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis
Published by And Other Stories
Aneesa Abbas Higgins is a literary translator and former teacher. Born in London, she has lived in Britain, France and the USA and holds degrees from Sussex University and the University of London.