Heather's Reviews > Invitation to a Voyage

Invitation to a Voyage by François Emmanuel
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's review
Apr 11, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: fiction, library-books, literature-in-translation
Read from April 11 to 16, 2012

I liked the last two short stories in this book the best, because one is a fairy tale and the other's a spy story gone strange. Emmanuel's style, which is sometimes dreamy but sometimes just trite, works for me when it's playing with a genre like that: the other four stories in this book sometimes felt like they were trying too hard, like they were too self-consciously attempting to be literary, without quite managing it.

The first story in the book, "The Invitation," is a single sentence that goes on for seven pages. I liked the very beginning ("You wrote me letters on fine paper, yellowed") and some of the images (the narrator keeping his lover's letter in his inside jacket pocket, waiting for the right place/moment to read it) (7-8). But the bits about the affair itself are fairly cringe-inducing: phrasing like: "there was a curtain of thick cotton between the guest room and the bedchamber, I could only graze with words that other intimacy that unveiled itself within the penumbra, there where you gave your beautiful cry" or, worse, "that silence we knew whenever we entered the somewhat sacred chamber of our lovemaking" (12, 13-14).

I don't have much to say about the middle stories: there's one about an old man who hires a private investigator to provide him with details about a woman he's obsessed with from afar; there's another in which a man surveying the health of lichens in northern France meets a mysterious old man who practices "deep cartography" and claims he's mapped "all the fountains in downtown Vancouver" and "the silences of London" (63). Another, "Woman in a Landscape," is about an artist who's obsessed with a place, an ordinary patch of ground near her home. These stories are sometimes pleasing—the narrator's tone in "Love and Distance: A Fragmentary Report" (the one with the private investigator) in particular was sometimes clever and satisfying, but sometimes just irksome. (In that same story, the woman is more a cipher than a person, a screen onto which the male characters' desire is projected: which I realize is part of the story, but which still bugged me.)

"The End of Prose," the spy story gone strange, is funny and fun: I think the first two sentences of it, which set up a certain expectation of style and genre then partially subvert it, capture the style nicely:
The organization had taken care of everything, bills in small denominations, an itemized itinerary of locations, and a perfectly plausible circumstantial introduction, thanks to which my presence would arouse no one's suspicion. What the organization had not accounted for was the fog, a kind of milky tar that stranded trains in the middle of open vistas and transformed the landscape into a scene of floating islands and evanescent bridges. (79)

"The organization," it turns out, has arranged for our narrator to be a writer-in-residence at an artists' colony that our narrator is sure must be a front for some nefarious activity—if it weren't, why would the organization have sent him there, right? But just as the narrator's surroundings are obscured by the fog, his whole trip becomes hazy and uncertain. And is he really reliable? Is this a spy story gone strange or something else, after all?

And then there's the last story, "On Horseback upon the Frozen Sea," which plays with "Bluebeard": a woman the narrator is friends with has just rented a manor in the country for a song, though there's a big room that she's told she can't use. Still, the house is so nice, what trouble can one locked room be? Right?
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