AN IMPOSSIBLE LOVE, a novel by Christine Angot, reviewed by Titus Chalk

Christine Angot’s latest novel to appear in English, An Impossible Love, is an elusive read. Slippery to pin down in terms of its genre, the story also transforms in our hands after a pivotal reveal recontextualizes everything that comes before it. Not only the story’s content, but Angot’s aesthetic, too. Without wanting to give too much away (the effect was powerful and I want to preserve it for other Angot newbies, even if a glance at her oeuvre may reveal her thematic concerns), what can at first feel like rote autofiction, or even a parody of memoir, becomes a powerful meditation on the act and art of memory: how to preserve it, how to write it, and, perhaps most challengingly, how to live with it.

Originally published in Angot’s native France in 2015, An Impossible Love recounts the agonizing on-and-off romance between Rachel and Pierre, the eventual parents of a girl called Christine. The book was labelled a Roman, a novel, in its French version and seems to veer most obviously from memoir in scenes where the narrator recounts episodes before her birth (the nascent relationship between her parents) or at which she was absent (her mother’s consultation with her doctor about depression for example). Barring that, though, this is a story that reads as autobiographical, before blooming into something metafictional. Not only explicitly, as the narrator discusses her writing process with her mother, but also implicitly, via a change in voice, that distinguishes the book’s second section from its straightforward and sometimes even frustrating opening half.

Initially, Christine recounts how Pierre and her mother Rachel met in Châteauroux, in central France, in the late 1950s. Rachel is a public sector office worker, Pierre a Parisian of means, posted at a nearby military base as a translator. In the staid world of small-town France, he seems almost extra-terrestrial and quickly seduces Rachel, flaunting his privilege as both a man and a member of France’s upper-middle-class. Via his courtship, “[Rachel] discovered a new world. A world of intimacy, of constant talking, of questions and answers, the slightest impression was heartfelt, personal, particular. The unexpected details, the new words. The comparisons: surprising, radically new, contrary, daring.” But Pierre insists on keeping the humble Rachel at arm’s length, denying her marriage, inviting her only to follow him back to Paris if she will live apart from him. Though Rachel refuses this plan, she does give birth to Pierre’s child and raises Christine as a single mother, while Pierre ignores her pleas to officially recognize the child as his. Mother and daughter, under the scrutiny of the small local community, develop a powerful bond. But as Pierre marries a monied German woman and has children with her, Rachel and Christine are left dangling—legally, financially, and emotionally—by the absent patriarch.

Angot leans heavily on summary to recount this situation, in some ways speeding through this courtship, and in other ways, on first read, stringing out a repetitious state of affairs that can feel like the stuff of more slender memoirs. Christine’s voice can feel scatter-gun and she has a tic, for much of the book, of rattling off events without really interpreting them, lending the text a fickle, even disposable, feel. It is a stark contrast, though, with some memoirists who stretch plausibility with their narrators’ retention of their earliest years. Perhaps the most egregious example of this I can think of is Tracy K Smith’s turgid Ordinary Light, but even the doyen of modern memoir, The Liars Club, in which Mary Karr writes lavishly about her life as a small child. There is arguably an authenticity to Angot’s approach here, then, even if it can test us—at least before it becomes more readily understandable after the plot’s pivotal episode, in Christine’s later teenage years.

When Angot does give us scene, it, too, can be patchy. As the tug-of-war between her parents plays out, Christine sets up scenes that fail to materialize. A family meal is announced, then only discussed afterwards. Or mother and daughter head out to see a play, only to appraise it retrospectively. Along with this, the in-scene writing is often poorly grounded, with dialogue that can feel superfluous. It is perhaps consistent with Christine the narrator leaning out of the story (i.e. she lets dialogue play out with little intervention) but it can lend a nagging, florid quality to the story.

At times, the dialogue even feels like a reminder why writers aim for realism over reality. Angot’s slavishness to the latter can overshoot into some quite awful renditions of the spoken word, valiantly wrangled by translator Armine Kotin Mortimer. Angot gives us lyrics from a Dalida song, for example: “Ourr storrry is a storrry of lo-o-ove / Eterrrnalll and banalll it brrrrings each day / All the good all the bad.” Worse, she later renders Pierre’s German wife’s accented French like this: “’Christine, I vant to tell you sometink, but I don’t know if I dare. You know, sometimess, I am troublet. Becausse I tell myself I repeated, against your modder, de fiolence de Germanss dit to de Chewss.”’ While some aesthetic choices are cleverly justified after the story’s pivot, these moments fail to rise above bad taste, or in the case of the latter, simple sneering.

This might all sound like a litany of reasons to avoid An Impossible Love. But when Christine reveals a devastating secret to her mother, Angot’s work begins a rapid and compelling mutation. Suddenly, her narrator’s lack of interiority takes on a new meaning: rather than a frustrating, albeit justifiable, stab at a young girl’s take on events, it becomes a portrait of a memory eaten away at by trauma and repression. Angot recontextualizes holes in her story as red flags, rather than simple omissions. And, as her narrator reaches adulthood, she equips her with new tools that contrast with her earlier passivity. Christine, although wrecked by shame and guilt, gradually gains agency, processing events on the page, as she learns to reclaim her past and fill in some of its blanks. Her voice becomes more lyrical, like when she reflects on talking with her mother in the wake of her revelation, a moment where the unpacking of memories also comes to the fore: “The words seemed to emerge from an ancient box, as if preserved there for several years, emerging one by one, detached from each other, without fluidity, like old papers that crumbled between her hands in the light.”

The excavating of trauma causes a violent rupture between Christine and her mother. But it does allow us to reassess in real time the story we are reading. While not all frustrations disappear this way, enough did for me to find this book a compelling chimera. An elusive voice became halting, damaged. And even Angot’s reliance on rambling dialogue is partly redeemed with an electrifying monologue from Christine, where she explains to her mother how she views her parents’ relationship: “’It’s a vast enterprise of rejection. Social, thought out, willed. Organized. And accepted. By everyone.’” What follows is a precision excoriation of class and masculinity that is worth the price of admission alone. A dissection of how power can be a potent aphrodisiac to those who wield it, a poison to those on its receiving end. It is the culmination of Angot’s portrayal of a mind that, at first, dares not look at its own recesses—before probing them with deft and devastating intellect. An Impossible Love is a book about how we write the past. And while not for everyone, Angot’s method is cunning and confrontational, delivering a shocking sucker punch to any of us that might be tiring of autofiction.

An Impossible Love, by Christine Angot. Translated by Armine Kotin Mortimer. Brooklyn, New York: Archipelago Books, December 2021. 240 pages. $18.00, paper.

Titus Chalk is a British writer based in the US. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Nimrod and the Peauxdunque Review. He is also the author of Generation Decks (Solaris, 2017), a history of the fantasy game Magic: The Gathering. He has an MFA from the University of Kentucky and can be found on Twitter at: @tituschalk.

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