A Very French Melancholy: Olivier Adam, the Man Who Lost the Goncourt

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

• The latest in Lewis Manalo’s series looking at underappreciated writers worthy of wider translation considers the work of French writer Olivier Adam, who was shortlisted for this year’s Prix Goncourt.

• Prior articles in the series cover Louis Cha (China), Rodrigo Fresan (Argentina), Agnar Mykle (Norway), and Stephen Vizinczey (Hungary).

By Lewis Manalo

Anyone who gives half an ear to contemporary French literature has heard of the controversy that had surrounded the Prix Goncourt this year. For those who don’t pay attention to French awards, Michel Houellebecq lifted certain portions of his novel La carte et le territoire from Wikipedia of all places. Not only did he admit to doing it, he insisted it’s not plagiarism, that it’s simply part of his technique. And yet, as announced earlier this week, he still won.

Luckily, for those of us who don’t care to drink the Hateorade, there are other Prix Goncourt nominees to consider for further reading. Unlike Houellebecq, many authors on the shortlist suffer from a shortage of works in English translation, but one is most surprised by the lack of works in English by Olivier Adam. Nominated this year for Le coeur régulier, Adam was nominated in 2007 for A l’abri de rien, and among other awards, he won the Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle in 2004.

Olivier Adam’s work often centers on the figure of the outsider. Currently, only his short novel Cliffs is available in English, published by Pushkin Press. It’s a small gem of a novel, Cliffs is the story of a writer, also named Olivier, who spends a night in melancholy reminiscence, recounting the many alienating losses and sorrows of his still-young life. The narrator’s mother dies when he is nine, his father is abusive, his brother an enigma, and the women in his life have their own self-destructive tendencies. The aimless narrator grew up in the angst-ridden 1990’s, and one could almost call Cliffs a grunge novel as it sounds out its suburban domestic tragedy with the same bitter misery of a Nirvana tune.

Quite often, Adam’s outsiders are immigrants. In the film Welcome, directed by Philippe Lioret on a scenario by Adam, the lead character Bilal is a Kurdish refugee, set apart from French society by his illegal immigrant status, but also set apart from the refugee community by his efforts to swim the English channel in an attempt to illegally enter Great Britain. Adam’s Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle-winning novel, A l’abri de rien, is about a volunteer who helps illegal immigrants cross from France into the UK.

Olivier Adam’s clear opinions on immigration make one wonder if his great reviews are more for his political views than for the quality of his writing, a common mistake made by reviewers in any country. Furthermore, though heartfelt, Cliffs is a minor work, and one wonders why this of all of Adam’s books was translated.

But in Sue Rose’s translation, Cliffs‘ prose has a marvelous lyricism, and we find that it is in Olivier Adam’s prose that he excels. Reviewing Olivier Adam’s currently-nominated novel Le coeur régulier, L’Express praises the author’s voice with a, “Quel trajet!” comparing his writing to the Americans Raymond Carver and the writer’s writer James Salter.

In Le coeur régulier, the outsider is a middle-class Frenchwoman in Japan. The tragedy is a brother’s suicide. All of Adam’s “je-ne-sais-quoi de mélancolique” may be a little heavy to take in large doses, but when a writer is praised for his writing instead of criticized for his hijinks, we have all the more reason to take notice.

DISCUSS: In the Digital Age, Is Plagiarism Acceptable Literary Technique?

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