Hervé Le Tellier: telling it is enough

The Parisian writer Hervé Le Tellier (1957), member of the narrative experimentation group OuLiPo, mathematician, editor of authors such as Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec and literary critic, won the Goncourt Prize in 2021 with La anomaly / L'anomalia (Seix Barral /Edicions 62), a thriller with a scientific and philosophical background – a million readers in France alone.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
11 May 2024 Saturday 23:18
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Hervé Le Tellier: telling it is enough

The Parisian writer Hervé Le Tellier (1957), member of the narrative experimentation group OuLiPo, mathematician, editor of authors such as Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec and literary critic, won the Goncourt Prize in 2021 with La anomaly / L'anomalia (Seix Barral /Edicions 62), a thriller with a scientific and philosophical background – a million readers in France alone. In All happy families, written previously, the record is quite another, it is an autobiographical book where he portrays his origins, his childhood and adolescence within a family that he describes as dysfunctional – which one does not? is? -.

The title tells us what we are going to find in these pages, because when we read it we inevitably complete Tolstoy's famous phrase that says that unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. Le Tellier remembers, now that he is a grown man, the child he was, what he saw, heard, lived and internalized in his house. That intelligent and perceptive little boy grew up largely with his grandparents. Her mother, devastated after the separation from her husband, went to England where she taught and she met the man who would become her second spouse, the author's de facto father. His surname, more noble than his mother's Goupil, will end up being hers.

This work swells the increasingly populated shelf of literary works of a testimonial nature – mostly written by women – where modesty is hidden in a drawer and where reality is shown no matter how stark it may be. The French writer uses humor – very English – to temper and mark a beneficial distance from the violence of the insults received, of the darts launched by an unbalanced mother who imposed her rules. It openly airs the peculiarities of Marceline, her mother, her phobias and her habits, her amnesias and comments and how that conditioned her life.

The book presents a drama but at times it seems like a sitcom with the stories of the different relatives and that is very literary: the adventures of the mother's sister, her two marriages and her social rise and fall; her stepfather's family, the Le Telliers, down on their luck; the father's different partners... and the tiny, spacious or country houses where they spend their lives.

Whoever reads accompanies – and I would like to avoid bad times – the child who at the age of eighteen abandons a nest that did not give him shelter – the material always had him covered. Resistance is imposed, an analytical and rational look – “I knew he was a monster,” he says of himself –, which leads the author not to be vicious or dwell on the wound. This emotional distance can be perceived as a certain coldness (“It's nothing. My father is dead” or “My mother was crazy”) but it is not (“one cannot get rid so easily of the fantasy of having a family").

The novelist takes command and sets the pace (“let's not deviate from the topic”) and the tone – almost a descriptive and expert report. He exposes some episodes that marked a turning point in his relationship with his mother – the forgetfulness of the German occupation, the repeated lies, the violent irruption in the university class, the scene in the supermarket, the slights and contempt, the farewell to the elevator doors…–. Le Tellier lived with the mental disorder of his mother and also with that of Pettie, his partner at the age of twenty, whose memory is charged with emotion.

The French author has chosen brevity, knowing that a few words are enough for a good connoisseur. He has chosen the right scenes and words to portray that time of his childhood from which he has emerged touched but not sunk. The result is overwhelming.