The Company of Ghosts

Lydie Salvayre

translated from the French by Christopher Woodall
Dalkey Archive Press 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
When a process-server turns up at a housing estate apartment outside Paris and begins cataloging the possessions with a view to seizure for unpaid debt, eighteen-year-old Louisiane thinks about trying to save the televisions but is otherwise polite and obliging. Her mother Rose, however, is trapped in the past, reliving the traumatic events of her childhood in Vichy France; she abuses the process-server as a member of the Militia and a follower of Petain and Darnand and delivers long monologues about wartime events. Louisiane tries to explain her mother's stories, which she has heard many times before, but also begins to talk about her own life, dominated by her frustrated sexuality. Meanwhile, the process-server sticks to his business, getting his side of the story in only in an afterword "Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers".

The Company of Ghosts has a theatrical feel to it and an evocation of Sartre's Huis clos is surely deliberate. Its three characters talk past one another and occupy worlds which poorly overlap, but they continually frustrate and upset each other. Louisiane's first-person perspective seems relatively familiar and we can readily identify with her teenage fascination with movies, friends, and sex — and with her erudition and familiarity with classical literature, though that demands some suspension of disbelief. Her mother is clearly insane in her insistence that nothing has changed since 1944, but given her subsequent history that begins to seem not unreasonable. And the process server remains largely silent but provides an audience and the implicit criticism of conservative France.

The interactions between the characters operate on different planes. Louisiane and the process-server connect in the workings of the inventory and his presence sets off her adolescent coquettishness. The mother-daughter relationship is fraught, with Louisiane having taken on the responsibility of managing the household and her mother's insanity. And the violence of the French state against Rose and her family is clearly linked to the work of the process-server, as it turns out he recognises himself. But there is little space within which all three characters share any understanding — Louisiane, for example, seems oblivious to politics — and The Company of Ghosts requires a regular switching of frames which can be disconcerting.

If the formal structure is unusual, the style is also distinctive.

"Until one day I decided, Monsieur, to become my mother's mother. Mama, calm down, please, people are looking at you, don't talk so loud, take a shower, no, it isn't Putain, it's Jacques Dufilho, because I'm telling you it's not Putain, Mama, your drops, fifty, and your three tablets, you say they knock you out? not enough, they don't! Mama, don't go out in that outfit, you're grotesque, Mama, don't do this, don't do that. What would you have done in my place? I asked the process-server who was now concentrating his attention on Mama's TV set (we each had our own) and was jotting down in his little notebook: a color television set, brand Philips, screen 54cm, multifunctional remote control."

The Company of Ghosts is in many ways quite bleak: there are some horrors in Rose's memories and the distrainment of a poor household's meagre possessions is hardly cheerful. But it is leavened by its humour, dark and unsettling though that is, and is not depressing. It is a striking and compelling novel.

March 2006

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%T The Company of Ghosts
%A Salvayre, Lydie
%M French
%F Woodall, Christopher
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 2006
%O paperback
%G ISBN 9781564783509
%P 184pp