One of Europe's most popular and best-loved authors, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt captivates the reader with his spirited, buoyant style and enchanting stories that move effortlessly from the everyday to the fantastical.
The eight stories in this collection, his first to be published in English, represent some of his best writing and most imaginative storylines: from the love story between Balthazar, wealthy and successful author, and Odette, cashier at a supermarket, to the tale of a barefooted princess; from the moving story of a group of female prisoners in a Soviet gulag to the entertaining portrait of a perennially disgruntled perfectionist.
Here are eight contemporary fables, populated by a cast of extravagant and affecting characters, about people in search of happiness. Behind each story lies a simple, if elusive, truth: happiness is often right in front of our eyes, though we may frequently be blind to it.
Pierre Vasseur - « This is your first volume... »
This is your first volume of short stories…
EES. Short stories are a bit like water colours. You have to waste a lot of paper just to come up with one. In these, I found a style of expression that suited me perfectly: the short-story life. A short story is a life speeded up: you’ve got to tell a whole life in thirty pages. As I prefer suggesting to writing, I felt completely at home.
These stories came about in a curious way…
Yes, while I was filming and editing my film (Odette Toulemonde, with Catherine Frot, out early 2007). When I signed the contract, I was told: “You’re not contracted to write, of course.” Now, that was an incitement!
These stories are all about the quest for happiness?
(He quotes a line from the book.) “It’s a lovely rainy day!” The older I get, the deeper grows a source of inner happiness that is simply my wonder, and almost gratitude, at being alive. But these eight stories are about people’s complexity. None of the characters is rigidly one-sided. There is always the opposite side.
You are not afraid of mystery…
No, nor even of leading my readers to ends that are like trapdoors opening up. I trust my readers’ sensitivity. I’m a doctor in Philosophy, but when I sit down to write, I’m choosing to express myself through fiction, in other words, metaphor. An author has to trigger an impulse, an emotion which the reader then lives with.
Odette Toulemonde was inspired by a genuine encounter?
One day, I was signing books on the banks of the Baltic. I was feeling miserable because I was lonely and it was my birthday. A lady came up to me dressed in her best and handed me a letter covered in garlands and angels and with a red foam heart inside. A dreadful thought occurred to me: I thought “Am I worthy of such readers?” An hour later in my hotel room, I opened the letter. It was wonderful, and I spent the night with the foam heart.
Lire - « Odette and the other »
Eight short stories in which Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt casts a redeeming eye at humanity. […]
A writer and music-lover, who converses regularly with Mozart, searches souls and tells a wonderfully subtle story, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt can turn his hand to dialogue with as much skill as he paints a portrait. His musical prose brings to life tales with unexpected endings, in which the dominant characters are imbued with poignant humanity. Often facing sickness and loneliness or the death of friends and family, they endeavour to rebuild themselves through the redeeming eyes of another person. His collection of short stories, Odette Toulemonde and Other Stories, is as affecting as it is intelligent. He describes people harbouring secret wounds, who question their future while they open their hearts to like-minded characters.
As for Odette Toulemonde, who gives her name to the title of the book, she ends up meeting her favourite author. Together they share an unforeseen and overwhelming love story.
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt uses this opportunity to take to task literary critics who disparage and ridicule so-called ‘popular’ authors whose generosity is of such benefit to the readers who cling to their books as though their lives depend on them. These eight stories are parables on the idea of a future and filled with redeeming optimism […]. They will reconcile readers of romances and defenders of imaginative, artless novels. Truth and beauty are here brought together. Odette Toulemonde, which started life as a film, made by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt (out early in 2007) and which he wanted to turn into a book, has all the visual beauty and power of major literary works.
Le Parisien-Aujourd'hui - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's followers moved by his words »
Last night, 8.30 pm, Avenue des Champs Elysées (Paris)
Ah, the delicate flavour of Vacherin cheese! Should he feel a little peckish on the way back to Brussels, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, who was signing copies of his first collection of short stories, Odette Toulemonde and Other Stories, last night in Virgin Megastore, would have enough cheese to feed the whole train. For with every book he signs, a fan automatically gives the writer a cheese. Schmitt takes evident pleasure in talking to his readers. Yesterday, he rendered unto Caesar (alias Laurent Bonelli, the bookshop’s manager) what was Caesar’s. “It’s all thanks to him that I’m here. It was he who persuaded me, when I started writing novels, that it was a good idea to go and meet my readers. At the time, I said, ‘Are you sure people will be interested?’”
They most certainly are! Witness the patient ardour shared for nearly three hours by a very varied readership. Franca, from Val d’Oise, who has worked for thirty-two years in human resources for an insurance company, enthuses about “the way he uses simple words that make you think about absolutely everything”. Vincent, thirty, a company director in greater Paris, discovered Schmitt through his wife, who made him read The Bible according to Pilate (Albin Michel).
This latest book has got off to a flying start. One of the stories from it is soon to appear in cinemas as the film Odette Toulemonde (7 February 2007), and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s female readership has grown even bigger. But there was no lack of men last night, and they were as moved as the ladies when the novelist and playwright, casting a sweeping glance over some three hundred readers, announced in answer to their applause: “Basically, I get to everything through writing… I can’t put it any other way.”
La Libre Belgique - « Femmes, femmes, femmes »
… A born story-teller with a talent for telling ostensibly simple tales that nevertheless suggest a philosophy for life, Eric-Emmanual Schmitt takes the lid off the lives of eight women in eight contrasting portraits, each time with thought-provoking piquancy and suspense leading to an arresting and delightful end. Schmitt handles the art of surprise with considerable skill, and the reader turns with pleasure from the wealthy widow who goes back to the painter of her first romance, to the old lady who thinks her reflection in the mirror is a thief, or the story of the true-false Picasso that can change lives. Among these ‘tales of the unexpected’ is the Countess with bare feet who offers men the night of their dreams, or, in a story that strikes a different note, the female prisoners in the Gulag who write the only book for which they have paper and pencil. What can they commit to it for their daughters? The answer is in the book concocted by Schmitt.
Each story contains a portrait, a slice of life, in which happiness or unhappiness can depend on nothing at all, on random chance, on opportunity or on people’s ability to choose their happiness. Faced with men who are often weak and spineless, the women suffer, but all are in search of simple things that can bring a ray of sunlight.
Boston Globe - « The Most Beautiful Book in the World »
There is a surprising sweetness to these stories of redemption and reconciliation. They carry a slight pleasant aftertaste, a lingering hint of delight.
The Times Literary Supplement Review - « The circle is neatly drawn; its pleasure is a cold one. »
In the longest of the eight novellas in The Most Beautiful Book in the World, a shop assistant from a small town finally meets her hero, a novelist from Paris, and fluffs her lines. Her silly name,"Odette Toulemonde". which is also the title of the story, comes out as "Dette", and the bemused writer simply signs her copy of his latest work "For Dette". Embarrassment takes over; only his life is falling apart as hers is erupting with joy, and a whimsically romantic tale ensues.
There is little more to it than that, but "Odette Toulemonde" differs from the other seven pieces here in that it has another life, as a film directed by its author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. The film came before the short story, for, while filming in 2006, Schmitt rediscovered "the joy of clandestine writing". As in Schmitt's plays, with their carefully conventional stagecraft, the stories here have the clarity of a sequence of well-lit, well-shot scenes. In the first, "Wanda Winnipeg", a rich woman sweeps into a hotel, and the camera lingers on the trappings of money and power, and on her gorgeous obedient, young male escort. Then we get Wanda's history - Romania to riches via a sexual education in her teens, with the local Lothario. Lothario wants to succeed as an artist, and Wanda, in the moneyed present day, finds a way to repay him by giving him the critical recognition (and the cheques) he craves. The circle is neatly drawn; its pleasure is a cold one.
The same qualities appear in the next story, "A Fine Rainy Day", which is about a cynical woman - again, materialistic, successful - who finds her match in a trusting, optimistic man. When he dies, both her old cynical self and the contented- wife act that took over are locked up behind the pose of a grieving widow. The story's conceit does not quite work, however, and the same goes for the stories that feature, variously, a woman who finds a mysterious stranger in her flat, a cast-off mistress's consolation prize, a forged Picasso, and a woman who changes her hairdresser and discovers her husband's secret life. The tale of a beautiful girl who wears no shoes and a bad. besotted actor called Fabio has, of all things, a plot twist at the end. The title story is a concentration-camp narrative from Soviet Siberia, about imprisoned women trying to pass on messages to their daughters. It is more a tribute than a story, and its setting contrasts starkly with the hotels and hair salons of the preceding seven.
Schmitt's best-known work is The Visitor (1993), a play in which Sigmund Freud may or may not find that he has God on his couch. This new translation by Alison Anderson presents its human subjects with an appropriate, idiomatic lucidity.
By Michael Caines
Kirkus - « Schmitt's tales echo Maupassant's with their lean narratives, surprise endings, mordant humor and psychological acuity »
Eight stories about a variety of women from French playwright/novelist
Several start with intriguing puzzles. Who is the old woman repeatedly
breaking into Odile's Paris apartment? (The answer in "The Intruder" sheds
an imaginative light on sickness.) What is the secret at the heart of
Isabelle's apparently successful marriage, and why should it begin to
unravel at her hairdresser's ("Every Reason to be Happy")? The title story's
question is in a class of its own. The setting is a Soviet-era women's
re-education camp in Siberia. The new arrival, Olga, has a wild tangle of
hair: Why is that so important? All the women long to communicate with their
faraway daughters, and it's deeply moving that the most ordinary among them
hits on the perfect solution, revealed only in an epilogue. Schmitt's tales
echo Maupassant's with their lean narratives, surprise endings, mordant
humor and psychological acuity. That humor and acuity sparkle in "A Fine
Rainy Day." Hélène is a perfectionist and a malcontent; Antoine sees only
the good. Their marriage is counterintuitive, yet it works. The eponymous
"Odette Toulemonde," a humble Belgian shop assistant, is the devoted fan of
a potboiler novelist with big problems. Odette shows him the way out,
moderating a meeting with the novelist, his publisher and his difficult
wife. Even the slighter stories have their charms. A touring actor returns
to the Sicilian village where, years before, a beautiful young woman invited
him to a fabulous restaurant and then to her bed ("The Barefoot Princess").
A discarded mistress picks the wrong target for her revenge in "The
Forgery," which features a Picasso, while an old beach bum's really bad
paintings fetch big bucks in "Wanda Winnipeg"; the world's wealthiest woman
is repaying, finally, her first lover.
Fairy tales and realistic studies happily coexist in this elegant
Mostly Fiction Book Review - « Truth, beauty, and especially happiness are ours if we possess the strength to see them everywhere »
The Most Beautiful Book in the World is a collection of eight modern fairy tales. In each of the novellas, a sense of the fantastic intertwines with the mundane, sometimes enchantingly, sometimes crudely but still beguilingly.
The title story, for instance, transports the reader into the midst of a women’s gulag during Soviet rule where the inmates suspiciously eye the newcomer, Olga. She might, after all, be an informer. But the talk of the day is about her hair which is either “horrible” or “magnificent” depending upon the prisoner opining. The women think she is from the Caucasus because Olga’s hair is “a thick mane…frizzy, robust, course.” Yet one of the leaders in the camp, Tatyana, wants to get close to Olga and test her trustworthiness. Tatyana and others who bunk together are determined to smuggle out messages to their children — all daughters, coincidentally or not. Despite the strictly-enforced ban on the possession of writing materials, they have hit upon an ingenious way to “create” paper, but have no pens or ink. Tatyana is convinced Olga is the answer to their prayers in that department. Here this tale veers into the improbable (I won’t say exactly how), but let’s just say the guards aren’t as thorough in fables as in real life. Anyway, just get past that and let the rest of the story unfold to ample reward. The women naturally worry about what they should write their children who are now most likely wards of the State. With a limit on the precious amount they may write, they agonize over what is most important. Then, the prisoner considered by the others to be “the most scatter-brained of them all, the most sentimental, the least headstrong” stuns everyone by being the first to get her message down. She is at utter peace with her choice of words. The others can’t help feeling jealous and very curious. What did she write?
“The Most Beautiful Book in the World” touches on many themes: a) Whether women in repressive regimes ought to be political activists or “simply keep quiet…and immerse themselves in domestic values?” b) The mistake made when judging people by appearances; c) The wisdom of simplicity; d) How inventive people can be when they deem it necessary. And so on. Weighed in terms of literary finesse, and how fully it explored the themes introduced, one can argue this short story comes up somewhat short. However, it packs a mighty nice emotional punch. The conclusion, in its Epilogue in the year 2005, imparts a fitting epiphany about how we human beings can communicate immensities with but a few choice words. It is a lovely comedy in the classic definition of the term: there is a triumph over adverse circumstances.
Immediately before the gulag folktale, the collection’s longest selection (thirty pages) has its turn. The title character in “Odette Toulemonde” has “a talent: joy. In her deepest self, it was as if there were a non-stop jazz band playing lively tunes, pulsating melodies. No hardship seemed to get her down….Since humility and modesty were part of her personality, no matter what the circumstances she rarely felt frustrated.” Odette excitedly goes to a bookstore to buy the new book of her favorite author, Balthazar Balsan, and to have him autograph it for her. Odette, a lower middle class widow with two jobs, two teenagers, and a modest apartment in a low income/welfare building, gets so tongue-tied when she meets him that she can’t even speak her own name properly. Balsan’s books, she believes, showed her that “in every life, no matter how miserable, there are reasons to be happy, to laugh, to love.” Balthazar, a wealthy but rather empty man with a troubled marriage and young son who is taking too much after his old man, goes through his own identity crisis soon after this book signing. In true fairy tale form, he ends up staying with Odette and her family for a while. The question is can or should these two people have more to do with each other? In one pivotal talk together, Odette tells Balthazar, “Our paths may cross, but we can no longer meet each other.” Will that be the end of them, or are they destined for more?
The stories in The Most Beautiful Book in the World often embrace irony, rely on incredible turns of fate and misunderstanding, and contain characters who say one thing but actually feel another. Many of the tales float on almost magical clouds of romanticism and a tentative idealism. Yet, the thunder and lightning of life constantly show themselves too. “Odette Toulemonde” tries to point the way to balanced living, but “happily ever after” isn’t the endgame; instead, it’s a recognition of self and the ability to know when to grab for the brass ring and when to hold back, when to understand that if the brass ring isn’t within reach, maybe an iron one is. In “Every Reason to be Happy” a woman discovers her husband isn’t the man she thought and she has to decide how she will handle the startling revelations. The Wanda of “Wanda Winnipeg” is a rich, selfish woman indelibly marked by an older artist from whom she’d madly desired to learn lovemaking when she was young. Can she do something equally momentous for him now? In “The Forgery” the ability to trust is tested by two women with very different results. And what would any set of fairy tales be without “A Barefoot Princess” who may not be what she seems? Each story feels unreal on some level. And some are morose, some ugly, some more upbeat. Each in its own way also strikes notes of resonance and invokes human value.
Psychologically, each story delves into motivations, not always entirely convincingly. Fears, insecurities, trust, and belief play through the generally broadly written and sometimes quirkily inconsistent — but captivating — characters. Often, the reader will have little idea where the story will lead. Deaths occur. Lies morph as they pass from one person to another. But the leitmotif being passed forward by the author, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, is, arguably, that regardless of our histories, regardless of our economic status, regardless of our pettiness and self-centeredness, life often hands out teachable moments that can either make or break us. Truth, beauty, and especially happiness are ours if we possess the strength to see them everywhere.
Playwright, novelist, and short story/novella writer Schmitt, informs the reader in his Postscript, dated August 15, 2006, that he used free minutes between directing the screen version, Odette Toulemonde (for which he had also penned the screenplay), to write these stories. He explains that he’d been carrying them around in his “mind for a long time.” He adds, “‘This allowed me to rediscover the joy of clandestine writing, the one I’d known as an adolescent; filling the pages brought back an appetite for secret pleasures.” This appetite outs in The Most Beautiful Book in the World in such ardent phrases as “…after they had brushed against each other once too often, and he had kissed and dried the tears on her eyelashes or under her lips.” His characters display muted eroticism and less muted passion. However, the greater insight has perhaps to do with artistically technical matters than with secret pleasures. Schmitt didn’t have the luxury of endless hours in which to fine-tune his pacing or his prose. Although the plot ideas were pre-thought, his execution was impromptu. This unfinished quality accents each of the eight stories, although “Odette Toulemonde” — being his movie — presents with the most polish. Once one understands how these stories were written, their “draft” feeling isn’t bothersome (at least it isn’t to my mind).
The back cover lauds Schmitt as “one of Europe’s most popular and best-selling authors.” Europa Editions is the first to publish short stories/novellas of his, and they are translated by Alison Anderson. Unfortunately, Schmitt’s companion film, Odette Toulemonde, isn’t available with English options — yet. Schmitt’is fables — his fairy tales — give a tantalizing taste, but leave this reader wanting more. Some of his plays are available in English, but what about his novels and other short stories? It would be interesting to see his talent from a wider angle and read material he did not jot out in a hurry between movie takes. Perhaps we’ll see more of this author in partnership with Europa Editions?
Review by Kirstin Merrihew
Publishing Perspectives - « Tightly constructed and concise without sacrificing a deep sympathy for humanity’s dark moments and a celebration of its redeeming acts »
Although labeled “novellas” in the subtitle, these eight pieces are true short stories; each one contains only a few key characters and spans roughly twenty pages. In the broadest sense, these stories uncover the hidden sources of humanity’s best qualities: happiness, forgiveness, love, and generosity. Schmitt’s tormented characters stumble upon these redemptive qualities in the unlikeliest of places, often despite their own reprehensible behavior. In “Wanda Winnipeg,” a wealthy divorcée anonymously gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to her destitute first lover in an uncharacteristic showing of generosity and consideration. In “A Fine Rainy Day,” a “cynical and disenchanted” widow discovers her buried optimism. An ironical deathbed gift turns into a much-needed fortune in “The Forgery.” All eight stories in The Most Beautiful Book in the World are tightly constructed and concise without sacrificing a deep sympathy for humanity’s dark moments and a celebration of its redeeming acts.
Schmitt’s simple and artful prose captures his characters’ most intimate and raw moments without melodrama. In this example from “Odette Toulemonde,” Balthazar, a wildly successful novelist, recognizes the falsity of his life:
“[H]e owned an apartment in the center of Paris which left many people feeling envious, but did he really like it? There was nothing on the walls, windows, shelves, or sofas that he himself had chosen: a decorator had done it all. In the living room there was a grand piano that no one played, a laughable symbol of social rank; his study had been designed with magazine publication in mind, because Balthazar actually preferred to write in cafes. He realized he was living in a décor. Worse than that—a décor that wasn’t even of his own making.”
Schmitt relies too often on tidy endings—several stories involve conveniently-timed medical emergencies, for example—but such occasional contrivances cannot overshadow this collection’s masterful depiction of the messy but wonderful human condition.
By Gwendolyn Dawson