Am I Disturbing You? / Anne Hébert; translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Toronto: House of Anansi, 1999, c1998.
This little novella by French Canadian author Anne Hébert has been on my shelf for ages! I finally took it down to read it, and it was a quick read, though with its own sense of deep back story.
Edouard and Stéphane are two young friends living in Paris who one day come across a young woman crying as she sits on the edge of a fountain. They kindly go over to check on her, and she finally tells them that her name is Delphine, she's from Quebec, and she's pregnant & homeless.
Delphine is a bit strung out; she can't stop talking - as Edouard says, words just dribble out of her mouth, she keeps talking even if nobody is listening. Stéphane becomes especially attached to her, and over the next couple of months she becomes a regular fixture in their lives, appearing and disappearing, and telling them about her married lover Patrick Chemin. He's married to a wealthy French woman, and Delphine has followed him to Paris to make him acknowledge her and her baby; she is convinced he will leave his wealthy wife for her.
As readers, we think we know where this is going, and we are partly right. But Hébert surprises us in the development of the story - at least she surprised me.
In the book's opening pages, Edouard tells us that Delphine has appeared at his door in the middle of the night with her catchphrase, "Am I disturbing you?" But without waiting for an answer she crawls into bed with him and mumbles away until, Edouard says, he leans over to clear her long black hair off her face and her breathing changes: she dies in his bed.
That's not a spoiler, by the way - it's on page 4. Edouard then goes back over their history with Delphine trying to figure out how and why sh let her into his very orderly life. Her story, her presence, brings back his own troubled and lonely childhood. In the last few pages of the book we return to the scene in Edouard's room, with the police and ambulance there. Edouard is still feeling shocked and numb; but the last few lines throw his whole account into question. Is he a reliable narrator? I had to reread both the opening and closing again, but I still can't decide what I think. It's a slight, depressing story, but it's also finely crafted and quite ambiguous. Hébert is strong at portraying a character in just a few lines, and so each of these three leads, as well as the various side players, seem real and rounded. But motives are more mysterious.
This story, though short, is atmospheric, redolent with the sense of a hot Parisian summer, with the exhaustion of Delphine's wandering through the hot streets looking for her lover. The converging storylines are finely drawn, and there is an awful lot in this brief narrative to think about. Though not my favourite of Hébert's works that I've read thus far, it is a story that sticks in the mind, that still has me pondering what *really* happened, and why. It's dream-like and perhaps that it why it stays in your thoughts, with its various images appearing randomly in your memory. Definitely worth exploring this one.