Céline Curiol’s English-language debut, Voice Over, is a thoroughly French affair. Like much of Samuel Beckett’s work (the epigraph to this book is, quite appropriately, taken from Molloy), it chronicles, in relentless detail, an individual’s battle with a host of ontological neuroses that threaten to overwhelm her. And like Beckett’s worldview, Curiol’s is unremittingly bleak.
The anonymous “she” of the novel is a young woman who works as an announcer at the Gare du Nord in Paris. Given to fits of misanthropic rage, agoraphobia, and exhibitionism—she is, in other words, a knot of contradictory emotions—she nevertheless lives her outward life passively, borne aloft by currents of chance, circumstance, and routine. “No matter the city, no matter the age, there are transitional moments when a person exists by default, by pure reflex,” the narrator muses.
At the novel’s start, she finds herself at a cabaret, where she is seized on by one of the performers, a transvestite named Renée Risqué, who demands she participate in his act. She sheepishly agrees and, afterward, sleeps with him. Though such random encounters provide momentary thrills, she has no interest in fashioning conventional, lasting relationships out of them: “Love. There is something about that word that makes her sick to the core. She prefers to go it alone, without someone to make her believe he can raise her above reality.”
Yet despite longing “for the challenge of absolute silence,” the young woman is pulled back into the stream of everyday life by odd incidents. A man accosts her on the street, claiming it’s his fortieth birthday, and soon she is locked in his apartment, smoking marijuana with him. A photographer approaches her as she sits alone in a café and persuades her to come to his studio, where he takes pictures of her with a vine of tomatoes draped around her neck. She lies, telling fellow dinner guests that she is a prostitute, and one, a diplomat, attempts to make use of her services.
All the while, beneath a quiet facade, her emotions roil, and Curiol (in a nuanced translation by Sam Richard) does a crisp, almost clinical job in laying them bare: “Her heartbeat doesn’t slow; at a dizzying rate her brain continues to produce bits of ideas, pieces of thought, unrecognizable images, which she feels powerless to stop.” Her only idée fixe is an unnamed married man whose attentions toward her increase until, by the book’s end, they’ve planned a visit to London together. Her mood is pathologically euphoric, as she fears “doing anything that might upset him or uncover a reality other than the one she believes she is living.” At times, one wonders whether the author means to satirize her protagonist’s sunny disposition, or whether hints of genuine happiness have crept in. But without giving too much away, one can say that this auspicious debut ultimately stands firmly within the existentialist tradition.