Throughout this entrancing and disturbing novel, there is a continual sense of oscillation: a movement from a concrete, secure space, to an unfettered, uncertain realm, and then back again.
The prose – a challenge to translate, I’m sure, but done so with aplomb by Stephanie Schechner – can be impressionistic: phrases fall over each other; spaces are used instead of punctuation; dialogue, thoughts and narration blend. But it then settles into something quotidian and descriptive, before launching into another verbal flight.
‘I stop myself from asking What things? Especially as Clara has fallen into a sort of worrying of guardedness, an uncertain and ill-at-ease state in any case, where the cooking of the eggs comes in for part of it, but perhaps not. And as she turns off the gas under the burner, she murmurs as if to address some absent witness: —No one ever comes here. Almost no one. Almost never … In the end I ask myself if this place exists. You want regular bread or whole wheat?’
This oscillation – from safety to insecurity and back again – for me perfectly captures the experience of adolescence; and indeed on one level the book is a Bildungsroman. We follow Camille as she grows from a child, sitting with her siblings, listening to ‘the Mothers’ chatting and drinking coffee in the afternoons, into a young woman discovering her sexuality, her politics and her responsibilities.
The narrative frame, however, reveals a different, adult Camille, someone urgently phoning her sister with bad news; someone caught up in some kind of psychological loop, returning ever and again to the warm, smoky atmosphere of a flat filled with the Mothers, in a bid to make sense of something we’re never quite made privy to.
There is also a flash of unreliability: ‘I always tell stories … The proof is that it’s not even October, it’s March’ – the narrator here denying the book’s title, and throwing to the wind any security we found in what is anyway a very insecure text.
Yet, somehow, Best manages to keep us tethered. Despite the torrent of impressions, the fluidity of time, the lack of clarity around particular events, there is something deeply human about the book: the emotions, the internal dialogue, the resentments and battles between siblings, the passions and the disappointments, are all sharply familiar.
In the midst of the turmoil, there is one scene of simple security. Camille meets a woman on a beach, has sex with her in a nearby forest, and then goes with her to a campsite, where she meets an all-female group of campers.
‘They sat me in the middle of them They spoke to me very gently in their incomprehensible language […] Soft voices That wouldn’t disrupt the peace of the evening That on the contrary participated in it Infinite tranquillity, security of gestures: no man, apparently was expected. The was no urgency anywhere.’
For a brief moment, the storm in Camille’s head seems to calm. In the company of these women she finds peace. This scene takes place at the end of September. October – and men – will arrive soon, and, as we’re told in the book’s opening paragraph ‘if the Mothers killed themselves, it would be on a weekday In October In the middle of the afternoon’.
Tragically, Camille will not find her way back to the women on the campsite. Her life will take a quite different turn, one which will keep her forever in motion, between rooms, between times, continually confessing to a crime it’s not clear she has committed.
First published in 1988, Camille in October is one of three novels and four collections of short stories Best published in her lifetime. Only one other novel has been translated into English. My personal hope is that this novel will mark the beginning of strong interest in and well-deserved praise for this author’s remarkable work.
Reviewed by West Camel
CAMILLE IN OCTOBER
Written by Mireille Best
Translated by Stephanie Schechner
Published by Seagull Books (2019)
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.
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