"Every day it's the same story, piece the family back together again: Anne in Paris, Nore here still in bed, Jeanne out yonder".
That's the voice of The Mother, one of four voices running an internal monologue throughout A Brief Stay With The Living. Her daughters Anne, Nore, and Jeanne all share their thoughts in the same manner as they walk, sleep, sit, drive, spin, recollect their way through the same day. A day in the life of the french-speaking anglo-irish-basque Johnson family.
But something has happened to separate the family, a social explosion or a centrifugal power sending each one off on her own, yet everyone longing to somehow make contact and work their ways back together.
This thing, this something, is a force so strong that it has shaped the voice of every single person in the book. It is wedged in between their need to deal with it and their trouble dealing with it collectively, and as you read through A Brief Stay With The Living you slowly realize that they me seem like a dysfunctional family, but the becoming-family-again part is missing from the picture, and since they're all so wonderfully weird you can understand how they would struggle to find one another when so much has to be dealt with on every individual level.
And that's what I like about this book. The quirky characters, their rambling thoughts, the lack of structure that in itself creates a new structure, and the shared memory which haunts them all in different ways. A voice in a corridor, the vapor from a breath on the outside of a window, someone at the door. That one.
All four women tell a story with a distinct tone. The Mother, a former air hostess, now remaking her life with Momo, the boyfriend with a self-inflicted gunshot wound that has mangled his face, in a house in the South of France, while she apparently sees a psychologist who tells her to let go, but of what? Her children? The past? The thoughts that travel in circles?
Nore, or Éléonore, is the the youngest of the three girls. Living in the mother's house, studying, seeing this guy, some guy, going through post-teen pre-everything else thoughts. But above all Nore is sea-struck. Her story wanders to the surf breaking, lighthouses, waves rolling, the sea, pushing and pulling, the sea. And "above all, avoid flashbacks, backlashes, relay batons", which incidentally also is emblematic of how the four women deal with this... thing.
Then there's Anne, the middle child, wandering the streets of Paris, and the one rambling the most, taking lines of flight that lead her into what resembles most of all a psychosis or a somewhat schizophrenic behaviour. Anne firmly believes that she either has been or will be recruited by agents of some unnamed secret service, and her thoughts keep drawing in bits and pieces of every perception she has, feeding them to the machine that runs it all, the machine that speaks of agents, recruiting, speaks in missions and secrecy.
Finally, Jeanne. The oldest of three daughters, the global humanitarian aid worker, the one escaping the past through work, through living in Africa, Asia, Argentina. Settled with a husband in Buenos Aires but unsettled by what the memories of France are doing to her. She is possibly the weakest of the four voices throughout the book, maybe the least interesting. But that is more than made up for in the final fragments as a A Brief Stay With The Living comes to an end.
Someone cried Woolf
A review blurb on the back cover of the Faber and Faber edition I bought stated that the book "bears resemblance to the best of Virginia Woolf". Whether that is true, I know not, but to make available the comparison, begin with the voice of The Mother:
"All the same, the day did start well enough. Ten o'clock, coffee and a postcard from Jeanne. And then Anne called. The slightest phone call from Anne always sets me off and here I am, in a state again. But the day did start well, with roses, and that hint of a cool morning breeze, that first chill getting into the trees, the sounds in the air, branches, the gate banging, and even Nore was in a good mood and didn't complain when Momo got the lawnmower out. She's got an appointment. Three daughters and three mysteries." [p. 17]
And compare it to Mrs Ramsey's voice in To the Ligthouse:
"They must find a way out of it all. There might be some simpler way, some less laborious way, she sighed. When she looked in the glass and saw her hair grey, her cheek sunk, at fifty, she thought, possibly she might have managed things better - her husband; money; his books. But for her own part sher would never for sa single second regret her decision, evade difficulties, or slur over duties." [p.9]
What to me, ultimately, make A Brief Stay With the Living comparable to a Woolf story are the streams of consciousness of the women portrayed more than language or structure. The story of A Brief Stay With The Living takes place on a thought and memory plane where external action is rephrased as perception, experience, reflection. We learn about actions second-handedly, through the narrating voices. And still time passes, from one narrator-labeled fragment to the next, like little clips lined up to make time pass.
This is also a point where Darieussecq separates herself from Woolf. A Brief Stay with the Living is not as much of a literary exploration as for instance The Waves was, where Woolf never separated the narrating voices with distinct labels, and I found myself constantly working hard to understand who was speaking at any given moment. That made the Waves an amazing but also very difficult book (and I had to reread it in my native language, Danish, to really enjoy it). A Brief Stay with the Living does touch some of the same notes, but never really reaches any of the extremes that the Waves did. For good and for bad.
Every day it is the same story
In the end A Brief Stay With the Living is a fine novel. It is a book bordering on prose poetry, carried by strong characters that come to life as resemblances and dissemblances of one another. As such I felt that the Johnsons were a family, dissonant at times, yes, and unable to overcome their main common obstacle, but through their shared recollections they became one interwoven voice. They became a family.