The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016): David Foenkinos

★★★★

Imagine a library of rejected manuscripts, where failed books find a new home. Actually, it doesn’t take too much imagination, because such a place really does exist: the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, named after the author Richard Brautigan, who invented such a library in his novel The Abortion. In The Mystery of Henri Pick, the librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec forms a similar collection in his small Breton town of Crozon. For decades, shelves of rejected stories slumber in the back of the town library until, some years after Gourvec’s death, something remarkable happens. Up-and-coming young editor Delphine Despero, at home on a visit to her parents, visits the library of rejected manuscripts with her author boyfriend. They discover a remarkable text – a masterpiece, signed by one Henri Pick. Snapped up by the publishing world, this book becomes a sensation, less for its content than for the romantic story of its creation. But how did the late Pick, a humble pizza chef with no discernable literary leanings, come to create such a beautiful novel? As Crozon adjusts to its new literary fame, the novel begins to affect the lives of those connected with it. And then a maverick journalist raises a controversial prospect. What if the novel isn’t really by Pick at all?

Jean-Michel Rouche isn’t trying to be difficult. He just wants to find out the truth. It hasn’t always been like that: in his past life, as a ruthless literary critic, he was notoriously abrasive, shattering pretensions and making enemies without a care in the world, confident that his status would protect him. Now he’s just a fading middle-aged journalist with a nose for a story, and he’s pretty sure that the mild-mannered Henri Pick couldn’t possibly have produced the sensational Last Hours of a Love Affair. But the problem is that the world wants to believe in Pick’s authorship. People love the idea of a man quietly writing a masterpiece in the quiet hours between making pizza dough and opening his restaurant. They love the idea that he was blind to his own brilliance, and that he consigned his manuscript to the library of rejected books without even trying to get it published. Pick becomes an everyman: an avatar for everyone who’s ever dreamed that they have a novel in them (and haven’t we all?). His story gives hope to those whose novels have been rejected, and appeals to the romantics. Pilgrims begin flooding to Crozon’s cemetery, to the bemusement of the stolid locals.

And no one, perhaps, is more bemused than Pick’s wife Madeleine. Her late husband apparently had hidden depths that he never shared with her. Why? And yet, she begins to think it possible. Couldn’t the novel relate to their brief separation when they were seventeen which, at the time, felt like a towering drama? As journalists and TV crews clamour for her story, Madeleine’s humble life is suddenly thrown into a new light. And she’s not the only one who is changed. The novel begins to shift the foundations of other lives as well. There’s Madeleine and Henri’s daughter Joséphine, whose husband has walked out on her, whose daughters have moved to Berlin, and whose fragile pride is currently founded on her lingerie shop in Rennes. There’s Magali Croze, Gourvec’s successor as Crozon’s librarian, who begins to reassess her faded relationship with her husband. There’s Rouche, whose quest gives his career a much-needed boost and opens the possibility of a more rewarding future. And of course there’s Delphine too. The success of Pick’s novel has boosted her career and given her reputation new lustre, while her boyfriend Frédéric struggles to get recognition for his own (less glamorous) literary efforts. Every one of these people will be transformed by the story of Pick’s novel. Some of them think they can solve the mystery. But who will be proven right?

Foenkinos’s novel has been a massive success in France: it’s already been turned into a film, which came out last year with Fabrice Luchini in the role of Rouche. Its appeal is obvious: this is a novel written about books, by someone who loves books, for other people who love books. It mixes reality with fiction: for example, Delphine is credited with recognising the brilliance of Laurence Binet’s HHhH, which Grasset did indeed publish; and I imagine there are plenty more Easter eggs for those familiar with the world of French publishing. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are also stylistic Easter eggs. I was struck by the frequent use of ellipses to show when characters pause or are silent (‘…’). Could this be a playful reference back to the start of the novel, when Gourvec longs for an assistant to whom he can chat about the use of ellipses in Céline? Is this the kind of thing you find in Céline? I suspect it’s a literary in-joke – the kind that makes you wonder how many others you’re too poorly-read to spot. But I stress: there’s nothing pretentious about the novel. It’s just a love letter to books of all sorts. Foenkinos tells us about the novels his characters love: Rouche is working his way through Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, while (in the ‘past’) we see Gourvec assessing the visitors to his library and carefully selecting what he thinks will be the perfect book to awaken their passion for reading (he judges that his assistant Magali would adore The Lover by Marguerite Duras). There are lots of references which lead you off down happy rabbit-roles of research: I ended up taking a break about halfway through to listen to Barbara’s song Göttingen, after it sparks a host of teenage memories for one character.

I really did enjoy this little book. It’s very French in ways I find hard to define: something to do with the cosy languor of small-town life; the focus on middle-aged characters and their romantic tribulations; the joy taken in literature; and the way that a sudden discovery offers a prism for modest people to reassess their lives. In many ways it reminded me of Grégoire Delacourt’s The List of My Desires, another novel about a small-town life transformed by unexpected prosperity, although The Mystery of Henri Pick is more upbeat. Credit must go to Sam Taylor for a sparky translation which even adds little verbal jokes that presumably don’t work in French (‘Delphine could already imagine readings unpicking Pick’s life‘). It’s a pleasure to read: heartwarming, playful, but also sensitive to the hopes and dreams of its assorted characters. And the ending is just perfect. If you’re familiar with modern European literature, there are lots of references here to make you smile; but if you just want a good, solid story of love and mystery, this will work equally well. Who doesn’t love a story about an underdog producing a masterpiece that takes the literary world by storm? Deliciously Gallic.

As a small P.S., this is the first book in a series that Pushkin will publish in association with Walter Presents, who also work with Channel 4 to ‘curate’ (I hate that word when used carelessly but here it is accurate) a selection of foreign cinema for their viewers. It looks as though Walter is now turning his eye on European fiction, so I’m keen to see what other little gems they come up with. Bon travail!

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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