Summary: a sparely written account of a person coming to terms with loss and grief.
This partially autobiographically inspired work has the comforting effect of a prayer book or collection of confessions. It is built around the author's definition of its title: "exquisite pain" as "acutely felt, pin-point suffering" and is concentrated on happiness as a fixed place to and from and around which the author (and through her, the reader) moves. The persistent image I had in reading it was of a circular or spiral diary, being hypnotically drawn to the date of its start: that scintilla between 'Before unhappiness' and 'After unhappiness', the author's chosen division of the book, before being drawn to move forward.
Calle's central theme is the abrupt, unexpected end of a love affair while she is on a three-month scholarship to Japan that was intended to end in a reunion with her lover on a date and at a place he selects. It terminates with a three-minute phone call in a hotel room in New Delhi, becoming the dispassionately evoked "missed rendezvous" in one of its descriptions.
While having some trepidation about the journey and the length of time she would be away, and dismissing the threat that from her lover that it was too long a period to be separated, Calle carries on with her trip. It demonstrates both her faith in emotional commitment and her desire for intellectual independence. She believes that his love matches hers in intensity and that it may be tested, controlled, and ultimately sealed through the absence. That is misconceived.
The shock of the betrayal is described repeatedly throughout the book, each description prefaced by the number of days preceding it. Each of those descriptions is slightly different from the one before it, as the emotions wrapping and informing the fact are edited, reordered, excised and summarised as they affect the writer on that day. This style and form illustrates the exercise of memory itself as it accommodates grief, reinventing the past in the present in to order to deal with it in the future.
Alongside this text, the book recounts various stories told, anonymously, by people the author has met. None is longer than three quarters of a slim page; and, like the author's personal narrative, recounts a devastating event, from the suicide of a mother or son to the loss of dog or job, or the moment, felt like a rip in the heart, when a man suddenly recognises the absence of his happiness with his wife and child while driving on a sunny, springtime Sunday morning on Boulevard Montparnasse.
Accompanying the text are evocative colour and black and white photographs taken by the author of, among other things, herself, flowers, food, trees, landscapes, strangers, brief acquaintances, a hotel bedroom, children, temples, train seats and Oriental calligraphy glimpsed and captured on Sophie Calle's journey. A visual chiaroscuro that provides a background light and shade to the writing. The most repeated visual image is the red telephone, a mute, tangible reminder through which the end of the love affair is communicated to her. Contrastingly, in the 'Before unhappiness' section of the book, we are shown the letters from Calle to her lover, simply written as an intimate sharing of a traveller's daily observations, unaware that in Paris her relationship is unravelling in the ties beginning another.
The style of the book is uncluttered, which in itself allows the reader to imagine from his or her own experience, the nature of loss, its mourning and its place in the way we approach our future. Being based on an autobiographical event, it prompts one to examine for oneself the fleeting and random presence of love and happiness; and its recognition, sometimes after their passing. I found the descriptions at times painful, not in the way of a sharp, acute cut, but as a punch and the resulting bruise that changes in the intensity of its hurt and colour as it evolves.
Paul Auster has used Sophie Calle as the inspiration for his character, Maria Turner, in 'Leviathan', and I was interested to read that book immediately after 'Exquisite Pain'. But it is Auster's, 'The Invention of Solitude', in its examination of the processes of memory and its invention of another's character after death, in this case, the author's father, that makes an interesting comparison with Calle's book.
I felt that what initially might have seemed a morbid, self-pitying obsession, is in fact predominately a celebration of the human spirit to give of itself to love and, if wounded, to heal itself and begin again. This is achieved through Calles' measurement of her ultimately banal love affair, as she describes it, against the other vignettes of devastating human loss. The reader can only speculate if the protagonists and victims of those circumstances also survive, proceed to travel optimistically and, as Sophie Calle has done, transform the experience into enduring art.