For Jean-Paul Dubois, as for Emily Dickinson, ‘March is the month of expectation’. A prolific writer, he limits his literary endeavours to that one month each year. Whatever his reasoning, it has produced results. His 2004 novel A French Life won the prestigious Prix Femina and, in 2019, Not Everybody Lives the Same Way was awarded France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.
The premise of the novel is simple. Paul Hansen, a middle-aged building super-intendent, is confined to a Montreal jail for a crime which is not revealed until the end. Life is reduced to its bare essentials when he is forced to ‘share a toilet seat’ with a muscle-bound Hell’s Angel on a murder charge. Yet, apart from the occasional reflection on the bleakness of the cell, the blandness of the food and the ubiquitous vermin, the familiar tropes of prison fiction are missing, as both Paul and his author prefer to dwell on the greater cruelties of the world outside.
Paul comes across as an innately decent man, one who performs ‘humble tasks with serious intent and attention to detail’, and the climactic revelation does little to alter that. He constantly places his own story in a broader context: he was sentenced on the same day as Barack Obama was first elected president; his mother committed suicide on the day Mao Zedong’s widow Jiang Qing hanged herself. It is rare to find such an unassuming first-person narrator.
He describes the events, almost all beyond his control, which have brought him from his birthplace in Toulouse to Quebec. His father Johannes, a Lutheran pastor, left his mother Anna, a cinema owner, after her screening of the pornographic film Deep Throat made his position in the parish impossible. The pastor’s subsequent fall from grace is described with poignancy and power.
This richly engaging novel (skilfully translated by David Homel, who laces the sober prose with the odd flourish: an organist’s ‘arachnoid fingers’; the ‘jowly altars’ in a church) is built on a series of dichotomies: mother and father; God and Mammon; town and country; native Americans and Europeans; the prison of bricks and mortar and the prison of the self. Yet, as Paul’s final actions show, even the most sundered life can be made whole by accepting the plain truth of the novel’s title.
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