My next book in the summer reading challenge called Around Europe in 14 Books comes from France. It’s Reader for Hire, a best-selling novella from the 1980s by Raymond Jean, who passed away four years ago.
This time, I started reading this book in a special place: on the aeroplane, during my flight to Denmark (on my way to Sweden). I could have finished it all during one flight since it’s a novella, but unfortunately, I do not belong to the lucky group of passengers who manage to concentrate on whatever they do on a plane.
Take a look at what I thought of this book about the art of reading.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #12: France
Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean
Original name: La Lectrice (French)
Author: Raymond Jean
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Peirene Press
Series: Peirene’s Chance Encounter: Meeting the Other Series
Genre: literary fiction
Location: unnamed small town in France
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Marie-Constance loves reading and possesses an attractive voice. So, one day she decides to put an ad in the local paper offering her services as a paid reader. Her first client, a paralysed teenager, is transformed by her reading of a Maupassant short story. Marie-Constance’s fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services.
The main character, and narrator of her own story, is Marie-Constance G., “thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession.” Those are her own words as she introduces herself to the readers at the start of the novel. She won’t remain without a job for too long as she creates a ‘profession’ of her own: that of a private reader, mainly for the ill, the old, the lonely and those with mobility problems.
Despite the initial scepticism – first from her old professor and mentor Roland Sora, then from the man at the agency where she wants to run her ad – Marie-Constance soon finds her first clients. These are Eric, a 14-year-old wheelchair-bound boy with an overbearing mother; a widowed Hungarian countess known as La Générale, obsessed about Communism; Michel Dautrand, a divorced entrepreneur; and Clorinde, a cute young girl who lacks attention from her busy mother.
Marie-Constance’s job is not simply to drop by their house and read. She needs to socialise and she also needs to find an adequate read, according to the tastes and necessities of each client. With Eric, for example, she starts with Maupassant (I love him, so I was extremely pleased to see him mentioned and discussed) but eventually she discovers that he likes Baudelaire and poetry. With La Générale there is no choice: it’s only boring Marx. With Dautrand, the aim is to update him on modern authors, like Claude Simon, for social conversations. And then Alice in Wonderland for little Clorinde to stimulate her imagination. Prior to the first meetings, Marie-Constance asks Sora for advice on book choices and he always suggests the French naturalists; however, she believes that there is no perfect choice, that any book could be read aloud (I agree).
The role and purpose of the private reader are always being questioned. How autonomous is Marie-Constance as a reader to her clients? Since the particular customers all have different abilities and necessities, she needs to adapt herself to each one of them. But in the end, as a service provider, she always seems to be on a lower level. It often seems that she’s been employed more as a caretaker or a servant than as a private reader or an educator.
There is also the sensual and manipulative qualities of reading out loud. Everyone says that Marie-Constance’s voice is great and pleasant to hear; she’s aware of this, although she’s unable to hear herself while reading. In instances with Eric and Dautrand, the sensuality of her voice intersects with that of her appearance, thus incrementing the various emotions felt by her listeners. Her reading tickles their imagination and awakens their passion, often leading to spontaneous situations which Marie-Constance cannot avoid. So, it’s a cycle of manipulation between the reader and the listeners.
There is also, of course, the question of reading as a profession. Officially, it’s not a recognised profession; it’s a job created by Marie-Constance. Once the situations with her clients escalate and make her publicly notorious, she attracts the attention of Superintendent Beloy multiple times, who reiterates that her job is no job at all and that consequently, she’s breaching the public peace for nothing. But the on-the-job experiences and knowledge that Marie-Constance has gained make this kind of reading qualify – at least to her – as a profession. And such a profession requires a degree of professionalism that goes beyond Marie’s personal tastes. The woman, in a way, doesn’t count anymore; it’s just her voice:
A model reader should be a perfectly neutral and biddable instrument. Purely a tool. Purely a voice. Purely transparent. That may well be her limitation, but it may also be her glory. I now feel I’m really getting somewhere with my understanding and implementation of my profession. And at the same time I’ve achieved undeniable personal progress.
And yet, how long can Marie-Constance take in her clients’ eccentric requests without batting an eye? What happens when a group of VIP clients – men who are used to be listened to by the public – expect her to read the shocking, libertine Marquis de Sade for them? Will she manage to keep a hard, professional facade?
The review blurb by Cosmopolitan on the book cover says that this is “a book that will make you want to read”. In a way it’s true. The intertextual references and even simply all the talk about the act of reading is enticing. However, I thought that the description of the action of reading was a little bit lacking. It was just the protagonist going from house to house, socialising (even though mostly against her will), reading extracts and waiting for the listener’s reaction. Maybe it’s because we read the story from the main character’s perspective, but I expected to find longer passages about the very act of reading.
I cannot avoid referring to the first-person narration, as I often did in my previous reviews. I felt ambivalent towards Marie-Constance. Sometimes it seemed like she thought too highly of herself, relying on the compliments she receives. I also had a problem with the choices she made, particularly when it comes to Dautrand, the client who was more interested in Marie-Constance in a physical way rather than her reading. I found it a little problematic to accept the way she gave herself to him so rationally (there is an explicit scene with them). Maybe it’s just me and the way I am. Or maybe it’s because it felt that the main character’s choices were unmotivated or that she was perhaps letting herself be manipulated and carried away by her clients’ wishes. This difficulty in understanding and accepting these traits of the protagonist is what made me lower the rating by little.
Reader for Hire, or La Lectrice as it is known in French, was made into a French film starring Miou-Miou. I haven’t seen it, so I cannot comment, but that shows the success of this novella. I think that it is a well-deserved success, although I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s great. It has a certain minimalistic and artsy quality which reminds me of other French books and films and it’s easy to read. Readers who are interested in intertextual novels and in the art and the power of reading should give this book a try.