For his first novel, originally published in Germany in 1995 and only now being published in English, Pascal Mercier chose the academic world of linguistics as the background for the story. More specifically he chose a small group of professors meeting for a conference on the Italian east coast, in a seaside town not far from Genoa. Phillip Perlmann, a German professor, is our central character, the catalyst for the arrangement of the conference by his academic acquaintance and admirer Carlo Angelini. Recently widowed and obviously still suffering from the loss both consciously and sub-consciously (the latter becomes apparent in later stages of the book), he has had a long career but finds himself devoid of inspiration when it comes to writing a paper to present at the conference. He has also recently been invited to Princeton University in America, and will become an honorary citizen of the town during the Italian conference. This problem is the crux of the story – along with the fact that a Russian academic (Leskov) is unable to attend the conference but has sent the Russian manuscript of his work to Perlmann in advance. As Perlmann becomes increasingly nervous and desperate about his having ‘nothing to say’ he sits in his hotel room arduously translating the Russian text into English.
This task takes him almost half the 616-page novel. Having been told by the blurb that Perlmann’s fear and desperation lead him to an attempt to plagiarise Leskov’s text, by the time he comes to make the decision the reader knows it has been coming for some time. By the middle of the book the narrative has seriously begun to drag – Perlmann has become so neurotic and self-indulgent that one begins to find it hard to sympathise, though his situation is clearly dire.
Mercier is also self-indulgent. Page after page is dedicated to Perlmann’s anxiety and the act of moping in his hotel room and showering more than is surely necessary. His semi-reliance on sleeping pills seems superfluous, as if by having him depend on them (mentally at least) Mercier is trying to create a deeper personality that does not really exist, perhaps not even within the author’s mind. One begins to question Mercier’s skill as a writer – possibly the worst things a reader can doubt.
The novel is a little over 600 pages and one wonders whether this length is really necessary. The blurb’s synopsis suggests a depth of intrigue and thiller-esque tension, but this is simply not sustained beyond the first 100 pages, if that. The sheer length of this text seems to exhaust the author and protagonist as well as the reader – the story and the writing both begin to flag somewhere between 200 and 300 pages into the book. Momentum slows and seems to drag at the moment when the tension should be at its highest. Perlmann’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, but the reader becomes increasingly uninterested.
By the third section of the book and the coming conclusion, one does not really care about Perlmann at all anymore and is frankly relieved that this overly long text is coming to an end. Again we are given pages and pages of Perlmann worrying and waiting, counting the time until this or that happens. Again both author and character are self-indulgent and neurotic.
This is a promising novel and has moments of some truly beautiful prose – mostly early on – and it is no surprise that it was a bestseller throughout Europe in the 1990s. However, the rambling and indulgent plot structure overwhelm the skill of the writer that lies beneath the obsessional detailing of Perlmann’s worries and neuroses.
Published in October 2011 by Atlantic Books. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.