By Emmanuelle Pagano


Two Lines Press
November 2016

Reviewed by Michael B. Tager


While reading Trysting by Emanuelle Pagano, something troubled me. Not the prose (which is lovely and beautifully translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis) and certainly not the content. The subject matter of Trysting is often troubling, but I'm an adult and as such, am capable of dissecting complicated material and realizing that relationships are complicated and often unhealthy. I can read challenging material—and Trysting is often challenging—without internalizing trauma. No, the content is justified and forever relevant.

What bothered me was the title itself. Translated from the French, Trysting doesn't seem to address the meat of the book in any particular way. Nouons-Nous, the original French title, seems to be a sort of idiom, one that doesn't make a lot of sense when imported to English (as often happens with idioms). Roughly speaking—let the record show that the reviewer speaks poor Spanish, minimal German, and scant Japanese—Nouons-Nous would translate to "are establishing us." In English, it doesn't quite scan. Perhaps, Establishing Us?

This might seem like quibbling, but it is important, because Trysting is a scattershot book of hundreds of tiny vignettes, encompassing everything from initial encounters to literal trysting, to the dissolution of love, to rape and violence, to unrequited, seen-from-across-the-way romanticism. "Nouons-Nous" drills down to the bedrock of the establishment of us. It's a broad topic that can and does encompass infinite arrays of interpretation. To boil that down to "trysting" seems to downplay the struggle and minimize it. Of course, that may be the point, part of the construction.

What Pagano has constructed here, using sentence-, paragraph-, or page-long vignettes is not a narrative as such. There are no names, no specific characters, no given locations that function as landmarks for the reader. Those coming in with expectations of a story are going to be disappointed. However, what is found within Trysting is no less affecting for its non-linear structure. Although Pagano isn't telling a story, she is telling a theme, telling a tone, telling a part of life that resists too-particular expression. And she's exploring this aspect of life through humor, pathos, through chilling detail and through whimsy.

The vignettes are spaced in such a way as to keep the reader guessing which direction is up. Pagano never quite allows the pieces to fall into order, which would allow the reader to become complacent. Instead, she will pair a lovely description of intimacy, "I love it when he goes around naked in my house. It's as if he lived here," with a simple line of chilling matter-of-factness, "Desire for her made me stronger, a good deal stronger than her." That these vignettes are on opposing pages, offset by a simple description of a cup of coffee and a divorce, illustrates what's inside the pages of Trysting.

Not that everything within is heavy or meant to elicit anything beyond a smile. Segments of Trysting are intended to evoke laughter. Because what happens between two people can be a joyous, miraculous relationship.

He was inaccessible, taken up with his work, his friends, his social life. He never looked at me . . . I waited until he left for a few days over Christmas and I moved into his apartment. I knew where he hid the key. I unpacked and put everything away, leaving no hint of my recent arrival . . . I divided the walk-in closet into two, I mixed our books together . . . I was cooking when he came in . . . When he asked who I was, I acted surprised, indignant, laughing it off . . . He sees me, he looks at me, he touches me, and he's getting used to me.

Of course, even though Pagano judiciously sprinkles levity through her work, there are passages that rend the heart. Divorce, unrequited love, simple dissolution and, of course, death, dwell inside of Trysting. That the words are lyrical and poetic does little to soften the ache when reading the passages that focus on what happens when "us" becomes "me."

I went to the clinic to catch his soul and bring it back home. I had string with me to lead it. A great big ball of thick string. I went up to him, embraced him one last time, rested my lips on already cold eyelids, then took his wrist and tied the string to it, as I had seen my grandmother do with my grandfather's wrist in the local hospital. Then, from this bracelet, I unrolled the ball across the room, down the corridors of the clinic, and out to the courtyard where a taxi was waiting for me. I ignored the looks and questions. I held on to the string through the open car window; he followed me the whole way. I talked to him, telling him to come with me, to come back home. I asked the driver to drive very smoothly so that the string wouldn't get broken. I got out without letting go of the ball, which was almost all gone now, and went into the house. I continued unwinding it all the way into our room, right into the bed. I put the end of the string to bed between our sheets.

How Pagano manages to convey painful truth into lovely, simple prose is a marvel. There's so much beauty in Pagano's words, even translated from her mother tongue to English. The translation work is so seamless that it reads as if it could have been originally written in English. Perhaps it's the sentiment at work. There's something about love, romance, lust, passion, anger, even obsession, that lends itself to thick prose that feels like hands can be run through it. Pagano's translators, perhaps because they're working with such a rich topic, translate fully and evocatively. At no point does Trysting slow down or hold anything back. It's a tapestry of prose throughout.

Pagano won the EU Prize for Literature in 2012 for her novel, Les Adolescents troglodytes and it wouldn't be surprising if she wins another prize for Trysting. It's a lovely, challenging book that delves into a challenging topic in an intriguing, unusual way. How else to explore how to become us than by giving the reader hundreds of "Us-es" and asking them to identify themselves within?