Turning the Ordinary into Something Extraordinary

Roger Lewinter is a writer to be reckoned with, and a testament to the importance of literature that takes risks

Lewinter is one of those writers who you’ve never heard of before, but who, once you read him, you can’t understand why he isn’t better known. He is well known in France (like Jerry Lewis, who he doesn’t resemble at all), but virtually unknown in the United States. The two translations of his excellent slim books that New Directions has just published are the first pieces of his work to be translated into English.

I only heard of him because I was translating a book from French, Jean Frémon’s Proustiennes. There, Frémon puts Lewinter in the company of writers such as Samuel Beckett, Robert Musil, Michel Leiris, and Edmond Jabès, all writers I admire greatly, most of them (not Musil) known for their precision and restraint. But even among such company it is Lewinter who gets signaled out for giving us “a book stretched to the limit.” Frémon reserves his highest praise for Lewinter’s audacious who — in the order — to the evening redness — words, which consists of “five dense pages without an opening capital letter or closing period, followed by a gap that inserts the same five pages in a slightly different version. The fanatical care with which each displacement, each inversion is brought about in the most perfect control of its effects.” For writers working at this level of care, the shifting of a word, a comma, can have a tremendous impact, even a secret drama.

Some writers make fiction out of the exceptional moments of a life: the turning points, the moments where relationships fall apart or come together, the moments where politics shift such that you suddenly feel threatened, and so on. Certainly that’s the more usual way to put literature together, and it’s based on a model of history that favors the dramatic: what matters are important men making big decisions. At the same time, there’s an undercurrent in fiction that does just the opposite of that, that deals with the mundane, with the domestic, and which looks for small moments of vision or clarity that individuals stumble upon, and which are better understood in terms of specific lives rather than generalized to larger groups. In America, the best writers in this mode are predominantly female: Lydia Davis, for instance, who can employ the slightest scrap of fabric from an ordinary life to make something luminous, or Lucia Berlin who makes a great deal out of lives that many of us ignore, or Rivka Galchen, whose Little Labors passes lightly over a number of disparate things in a way that renders a new mother’s situation with startling resonance and power. These are all books that rely on their syntax and the care of their word choice to carry them forward, using language to alchemize the ordinary into something extraordinary. Lewinter is one of the few male writers I know who manages to do this well.

Jean Frémon speaks of Lewinter’s The Attraction of Things as being more a sort of music than a novel: “a melody that was sinuous, secret, haunting and, finally, dazzling.” The Attraction of Things is a book composed of the simplest things, the bits and pieces of the life of a man who seems in perhaps every respect to be Lewinter himself. It is a book that confounds the distinction between fiction and autobiography. Its narrator is a man who, like Lewinter, has translated Georg Groddeck and Rilke, who spends a fair amount of his time searching for old Opera recordings in the flea market, who is obsessed with finding a particular Kashmir sweater, and who has to sort through the complexities of his father’s illness. Over the course of seven chapters, in less than eighty pages, and with long, sinuous sentences, The Attraction of Things lays out the details of a life in all its blunt honesty: phone calls, visits to friends, little moments of personal joy and desolation. It is a profoundly personal book, intimate in the same way as Bastien Vivès’s almost wordless graphic novel A Taste of Chlorine is: you go away from the experience feeling that you’ve really entered another person’s skin.

In Story of Love in Solitude, instead of a fragmented view of the small moments of a life, we have three stories less than forty pages long in all, each of which walk that same line between fiction and autobiography. These are not plotted stories but reflections, simple moments described with clarity, accuracy, and perception and which can suddenly open into places of great — and always surprising — intensity. The title story, just two and a half pages long, is the story of a spider that keeps coming into the house and that the narrator keeps putting out. Just that, nothing else, but it somehow still gets at the heart of how we think of the places we live and the creatures that come into them. “Passion” is about a camellia plant and how the narrator interacts with this plant in his living place as it suddenly begins to wane. “No Name” is about a man the narrator keeps seeing at the street market and his interest in him: the way in which individuals can call to us without they themselves necessarily knowing and without us being sure exactly why.

In short, these are moving and sonorous stories despite their intense simplicity. These stories, taken with the longer narrative that is The Attraction of Things, suggest that Lewinter is a writer to be reckoned with, and that our literature would be better if more writers were willing to take the kinds of chances he takes.

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