Of misery and cauliflower: The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard

The tale that unfolds between the covers of The Author and Me by French writer Éric Chevillard is, to be honest, quite unlike anything I have ever read. In fact the tale, or rather tales and other sundry comments exist on two levels: in what might be considered the primary text and in an extensive series of footnotes, which at one point digress into a 40 page story called The Ant. And linking it all is the character’s (and possibly the author’s) explicit loathing for cauliflower gratin. And can the protagonist wax lyrical about his utter contempt for the cruciferous casserole? He can, and does. He also sings the praises of his most desired dish, trout amandine. It would be ridiculous – well perhaps it is ridiculous – if it was not so very funny.

AuthorOh wait, I can sense you backing away now and looking for a quick exit. Would it help if I add that you will also find murder and two shocking twists within these pages?

The book opens with a Foreword in which the author briefly discusses the way his past characters have been conflated with either real individuals or with himself. Questions of the nature of writing and an author’s responsibility for the beliefs and actions of his or her creations continue in the extensive, ongoing footnotes. Meanwhile, on ground level, shall we say, the main character, a middle aged man, collars a young woman sitting on the terrace of a café. With little preamble he launches into what may, or may not, be leading to the confession of a crime predicated on the indignity of being promised trout and being serve a dish of congealed cauliflower and cheese. He contrasts his views about the two dishes with passion:

“On the one hand, the vast openness of space, the loving moon, still more heavens beyond the heavens; on the other, a dull, leaden horizon, the collapsed roof, the flooded basement.

On the one hand, life in all its possibility, benign and, for a few moments – some ten mouthfuls – magnificent; on the other, the wretched gloom of day following endlessly upon day, a longing for death, death as rescue and release.”

As the character’s tale of woe continues, the footnotes run commentary on the author’s tendencies and predilections, muse on the relationship between the author and his character, the author and his reader, and the general nature of writers and their relationship to the world. As you might imagine, the lines between the actual author, M. Chevillard, who continually references his own prevous work, the (presumably) fictional author and the created character blur as the novel becomes increasingly bizarre.

Which all brings us back to this most reviled of vegetable dishes. How serious is the character’s diatribe? How much, against the footnote creator’s protestations, is ironic? Allegorical? To what is it a commentary on the state of literature? On the very state of civilization?

And when is cauliflower gratin simply cauliflower gratin?

For a taste of contemporary experimental absurdist French literature, tuck in your napkin, pray for trout but prepare for cauliflower. Created with finely seasoned humour by Éric Chevillard, carefully prepared and translated for your consumption by Jordan Stump and served up by Dalkey Archive Press, this is a novel that has to be experienced to be appreciated. It has definitely whet my appetite for tasting Chevillard’s earlier work.

This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

25 thoughts on “Of misery and cauliflower: The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard

  1. Metafiction to the max! One of JM Coetzee’s memoir/novels, Summertime also has extensive footnotes. I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say if it’s similar in any other way.

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    • Definitely metafiction, the author seems to be dissecting himself as much as the cauliflower gratin his character claims to dislike. The footnotes are not only extensive but very fine print. It’s almost like a dialogue between the storyteller and the author of the footnotes (who are, of course, one and the same).

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  2. Yesssss cauliflower cheese (as we plebby English call it) is utterly fucking vile. The line between al dente and porridge is so fine. Too fine. I will only eat that particular vegetable raw. It is second only to raisins in the disgusting food… stakes. And meta is such a lovely journey. Lol I’d give this book a positive review on the strength of those things and your review.

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      • Ah, I’m still waiting for my copy of ‘Last Lover’ from the Book Depository, and it’s been over a month, so I think I’ll have to get some local help on address input before I try that again.

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      • I ordered a book from a publisher in the US and when nothing arrived for over 3 weeks I contacted them and they said that Canadian orders tend to take 3-6 weeks! And we are right next door.

        If you travel in South East Asia I wonder if it would be worth trying to develop a contact to whom you could have books sent. I know a Filipino blogger who orders from Book Depository. I wonder what his delivery times are like.

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  3. This sounds like fun. I assume the whole footnote commentary thing works and doesn’t feel gimmicky? I love books that play with stuff like that but so often the two parts don’t really integrate and I am left feeling disappointed.

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    • Well it is post modern so it is intentionally playing with the typical structure of a novel. Even when the author seems to be telling a conventional story he delights in turning the process on its head. The footnotes are not only essential but really carry the important questions about the nature of writing. Neither the “main” story nor the footnotes could exist without the other, and without Chevillard’s humour and clever satirical wit it would be dreary. I would think that for someone who wants to try something experimental this is surprisingly readable and fun.

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  4. I get what’s been said here about how this is all clever and bizarre. What I don’t get is why I should care? I mean, what makes this more relevant to anything than a book that explodes myths about administrators? It would have been nice to have had a peek in the Amazon ‘look inside’, but it’s hard to comment when the publisher hasn’t provided this feature. What a pity.

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    • I cared because I was curious. I was reading some of the shortlisted BTBA titles and the reviews for this book intrigued me. Had I “looked inside” so to speak I probably would not have bought it. In fact I happened across a copy at a bookstore after I had ordered it and I was quite horrified by the extensive footnoting in tiny font! (Dalkey Archive is not for profit press out of the U of Illinois with a highly specialized focus. I am not certain that providing a “look inside” feature is feasible for such publishers. I don’t know.)

      Who would want to read this? Someone who already enjoys a writer like Beckett and wants to know what is happening in contemporary absurdist/postmodern lit. Or someone who wants to try something postmodern that is not only very funny but surprisingly readable. There is a very real effort to explore the connection between an author and his characters.

      In writing about this book I am well aware that it is not going to be to everyone’s taste. Just like cauliflower gratin. 🙂

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      • Actually it sounds like the kind of book I’d like, become annoyed at myself for liking it (on account of it’s being yet another self-referential book), then dislike it for promising likeability, delivering on that promise (despite myself being in spite of myself), and all leaving me shrugging my shoulders not, as the author probably is, about life, but about his book. I can’t help feeling that playful and amusing books that are arguably for their own sake tend to keep their readers from more important things. Like administration. Or cauliflower cheese. Oh alright. I will at least investigate further.

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  5. It sounds excellent, though I’ll need to look at a copy in a shop as I have terrible eyesight and tiny font would basically make it inaccessible to me (I’m not blind or anything, but my eyesight isn’t great and it just gets to be a strain if the text’s too small).

    Nice review of what I suspect is a very hard book to review.

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    • I tend to preview paper books for readability myself, so this one was a shock. I am very farsighted (rather my arms have gotten too short over the years!). I did take care to read this in good light but I must admit that the paper quality and typeset go a long way to enhance readability. Dalkey Archive takes care with these feaures and, of course, the book is not long.

      Often when I look at books in the store it is not font size so much as print quality, type set and spacing. I sometimes look at a book and feel instantly irritated by the presentation of the print. I will then opt for an e-book if that is an option.

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