At the end of Grégoire Bouillier’s new memoir, the author recalls passionately kissing his mother at the age of seventeen and expecting the sky to quite literally fall on his head. Seconds afterward, he laments, “Everything has remained in place. The world is the same, and I’m its prisoner. My intervention didn’t accomplish anything. Didn’t cause any upheaval. It’s always the same oppressive emptiness.” Report on Myself chronicles Bouillier’s attempts to transcend the quotidian and live an outsize life—one that approaches mythical proportions.
The memoirist’s birth is the result of a threesome between his mother and father and a male hospital intern in Algeria, where his dad was stationed by the French government in the ’50s. “You’re a love child,” his mother tells the uncomprehending Bouillier as a boy. It’s an apt start to a frenetic existence. At the age of four, the author contracts Staphylococcus aureus, or golden staph. His face is covered in sores, and he can barely breathe. Penicillin cures him, but he is left without a sense of smell. Throughout Report on Myself, Bouillier restlessly seeks out metaphors to bind the eras of his life; in this case, he compares his illness to a toxic relationship he would have, twenty-five years later, with a woman who left him immediately after bearing his child: “Laurence had made sure that she would never be altogether absent from my life; and staphylococcus aereus is a pathogen strain from which you never recover. . . . [T]he germs merely lie dormant.”
At nine, Bouillier has an epiphany while a guest at the house of two wealthy schoolmates. He is invited by their beautiful mother for a round of golf to be played later that afternoon. Soon, though, the woman is in tears—Bouillier can’t figure out why (and never does)—and he’s told to go home. A diatribe of disabuse floods his mind: “One event follows on the heels of another, with no apparent link, no meaning that I can fathom. But I know that my own story has just been radically altered. The world isn’t nine years old like I thought it was.” He determines to give himself over to synaptic experience: “Everything was only illusion, smoke, movement. . . . From then on I’d only be aware of appearances and disappearances. Then only am I stimulated, do I rediscover my contours, accede to an age of instinct. My sensations become sensational. Time stirs. I’m alive.” To riff on Susan Sontag, the little man has concluded that in place of a hermeneutics he needs an erotics of existence.
At war with this philosophy is Bouillier’s pathological need to ascribe a higher meaning to his life vis-à-vis literature. In The Mystery Guest (2006), his English-language debut (and also a memoir), a party invitation from an old girlfriend makes sense only after he arrives and divines in her behavior certain plot points from Mrs. Dalloway. He suspects his ex possesses a secret “desire to purge herself of roughness and mediocrity and rise to the condition of a novel.” Such an intention seems more like Bouillier’s. Briefly homeless at the age of thirty, he returns to his parents’ house and, “in a single transfigured night,” reads the Odyssey. Convinced that the poem is in complete accord with his own travails, he concludes, “I existed for The Odyssey, and that finally legitimized my presence on earth. The book had baptized me.”
Bouillier’s obsession with discovering an elegant, geometric structure to his life can come off as schematic, as when he notes that his birthday, rendered as 06/22/60, “seems to contain a mysterious arithmetical palindrome, this time favorably distinguishing me from the lot.” But his crises, laid out in episodic chapters (in a lithe translation by Bruce Benderson), are more often intellectually and emotionally riveting. “It is very unhappy,” Emerson wrote in his essay “Experience,” “but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist.” Bouillier stretches the sentiment to its comic extreme.