A City Solitary by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!"
(Lamentations 1:1, King James Version)
When reading A City Solitary (1985) my reactions alternated between awe and exasperation. Now, that I have finished, I feel a little like someone who, having received a beautifully packaged gift, excitedly unwraps it to find just a little trinket inside. "Is that all there is?" one might be inclined to ask. This is my thirty-eighth book by Nicolas Freeling (only three more are known to exist): I have reviewed all of them here, on Goodreads and of all of them this is the one that I wish to review the least. The first thirty or so pages dazzle with utterly magnificent prose: I kept rereading sentences and passages to prolong the pleasure of being in contact with real, high literature. And yet, not even fifty pages later, I was barely able to focus on the text, so awkward and wooden it was. First, a thumbnail synopsis:
Walter, a middle-aged writer living somewhere in southwestern France, falls victim to a home invasion. The robbers, led by a young man, Fernand, break into Walter's house, threaten him with a gun, take whatever valuables they can find, destroy some precious objects of sentimental value, kill the much loved dog, scare Walter to the extent that he wets himself, and leave him bound. When Walter's wife finds him and wants to notify the police, he does not allow it. What's more, when the robbers are caught during another burglary, and Walter is called as a witness to provide additional testimony, he refuses to incriminate the suspects. He is determined to help the gang leader, who manages to escape from jail in the meantime. The second part of the book is an account of a demented journey of an unlikely quartet of characters across almost the entire length of France.
Most of crime/suspense/thriller novels are built on one fundamental premise: when bad guys do harm to people, a good guy (often a policeman or a detective) chases the bad guys and punishes them, thus meting justice. This is the archetypal, Biblical eye-for-an-eye principle. Mr. Freeling changes the pattern: when the bad guy hurts the good guy, the good guy helps the bad guy escape the so-called justice. Clever and interesting? Oh yes! Convincingly shown? Not quite. The lack of plausibility is not even the main problem to me: I would even tolerate it, if the whole novel was as beautifully written as some of its parts.
I have already mentioned the beginning thirty or so pages, where Freeling first vividly describes the home invasion, and when the victim is left tied up, in a sudden shift in the narrative focus, the author moves from detailed microscale reporting of events to a macroscale view, when his inimitable, soaring prose that touches on the essence of Europeanness, national character. and human fate, relates the story of one man's family on the backdrop of European history. But this magnificent narration soon fizzles to interminable, artificially sounding dialogues; as I have noticed many times, writing dialogues does not seem to be Mr. Freeling's strongest suit. Yet soon we are back to superb prose as we get beautifully recounted memories of one of Walter's first girlfriends and how he was trying to make love to her on the beach. Also, when Walter first learns about his wife’s infidelity, the account of his emotional trauma that quickly turns into physical pain is a first-rate psychological analysis of a universal human emotion.
The autobiographical component of the novel is rather obvious: in his youth Walter worked as a cook's helper and then as a cook, and so did Nicolas Freeling. Walter, whose heritage is a mix of English, French, Spanish, and German elements, has lived in various countries and his peripatetic life is reminiscent of Freeling's personal story that he later described in his last work, The Village Book.
Partly wonderful, partly irritating, a tad too sophisticated novel for my dwarf intellect. Let's call it a mostly failed literary experiment that had carried great promise.
One and three quarter stars.
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