Jean-Philippe Blondel’s novel, 6h41, was published in 2013. French readers, who use a 24-hour clock, weren’t confused by the title, but I suspect Americans, reading in translation, will be. The 6:41 to Paris, after all, sounds like it might be a work of noir, the train on its way to the lurid night. But it is a morning train, the 6:41. That’s the reader’s first indication that the novel is a work of literary inversion. Shadowy evening is bright morning. Hatred might be the seed of love. A distant end could very well trigger a new beginning.
Cécile Duffaut owns a successful organic beauty product corporation. A plain girl from an undistinguished town, Troyes, in middle age, Cécile has become stylish and attractive. She’s spent an emotionally draining weekend with her aging parents; now, 6:41 Monday morning, she’s heading in to work. The seat next to her is blissfully empty — until moments before the train leaves. Cécile gazes out her window. When a middle-aged man asks if the seat is taken, she sighs. She looks him over: “Wrinkled. Flabby. With sagging shoulders. A definite paunch. A scraggly beard.” This is Philippe Leduc. Twenty-seven years earlier, Cécile and Philippe, a heartthrob, had had an affair. He ended it, without explanation, without a precipitating fight, during a weekend away in London.
Blondel switches between Cécile and Philippe’s inner monologues as they become aware of each other on the train. Blondel acknowledges the engineered nature of the plot. “This is ridiculous,” thinks Philippe, and the reader will surely agree. Cécile channels her inner teen: “Oh. My. God,” a stock phrase she later repeats. In purposely overplaying disbelief, the phrase “Oh. My. God.” contains it’s own irony. Blondel uses it to signal to the reader: all novels are false, why fake it?
Blondel’s wink begs the reader to recall Graham Greene’s 1951 The End of the Affair, which opens ponderously, “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Green’s book has the quality of a long, high-walled canal; you can’t see side to side, only front to back, future to past. As the book opens, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix; as in The 6:41 to Paris, the first person voice will switch between Maurice and his former lover Sarah Miles.
Like Greene himself, the character Maurice is a novelist of renowned “technical ability.” The closeness between Greene and his protagonist allows him likewise to signal the reader: this story is a construct meant to heighten feeling. “It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there,” winks Greene, speaking for himself and for Maurice, still in the opening paragraph. The novelist is talking about constructing the story as he’s writing it.
Blondel places his protagonists next to each other on the train. Greene places his on either side of Clapham Common, in London. Maurice gazes out his window when he spots Sarah’s husband Henry tromping across the common through slashing rain. This is the arbitrary moment. But why should he go out to speak to him? Two years earlier, Sarah had left Maurice without explanation. Hatred for her and for Henry won’t relent.
Blondel inverts Maurice’s hatred and assigns it to Cécile: “a voracious feeling inside, the likes of which I had never known. A desire to tear everything to shreds.” This is how she felt on the train from London 27 years before. Now the hatred has returned. It combines with pity. Time has manhandled Philippe Leduc. Divorced, he spends his weekends with his old friend Mathieu, who is dying of cancer.
But what might happen after a chance encounter?
In London, 1946, after the chance encounter with Henry, Maurice reconnects with Sarah. They have lunch. He wants to kiss her and she pushes him away. He hires a private detective to follow her and he delivers Sarah’s diary. Maurice learns that she had left him because she couldn’t handle the intensity of her love. And that love has delivered Sarah to God; it propels a conversion to Catholicism. She’s lost interest in the here and now. Maurice is left drained, susceptible himself to signs of God.
Blondel writes with a similar near-sightedness. People up against a wall will always think in clipped terms, as if always half-injured. Blondel inherits this, too (without needing to invert it) from Greene, but the simplicity of his language, in Alison Anderson’s translation, allies his work with contemporary French writers like Dominique Fabre and Patrick Modiano. The gift of this French contemporary voice is the way it confronts the everyday, without pandering, without fear of the quotidian. This is ultimately how Blondel evades falseness.
The voice fails at times, however. Blondel too often privileges realistic speech (but doesn’t he realize we’ve acknowledged his wink?); he fails to exercise language. Cécile’s feeling of separateness is like “a thick layer of plastic.” Philippe’s mother is one of “the baby boomers who never really knew any hardship.”
I can forget the flaccid prose when Cécile and Philippe push deep into the emptiness of middle age. At 47, Cécile is only now coming into her own, but who around her is worth her time? Philippe in his own head wanders through the bloated mortgage, the distant kids, the dying friend. “The verb ‘to have,’” he thinks.
It’s a troublesome one. It’s not a verb I’m familiar with. The more time goes by, the more I lose. The more I lose, the freer I am. The freer I am the more I wish I weren’t so free. What am I supposed to do with all this freedom?
In London, after the end of their affair, Cécile had seized the opening given her by Philippe. The break-up awakened her. Even as she paced the foreign streets, leaving, alone, she took on power, hurling herself toward school and career. But she had already begun to possess power over him, and this had frightened him.
Blondel plunges gently into psyche. His prose slows as the train nears Paris. It gains its own confidence and quiet. It glimmers between them. It becomes possibility. Separately they pass over the night in London, remembering; the two novels pass each other here, perhaps somewhere along the south bank of the Thames. Reading Sarah’s diary, Maurice learns she still loves him. But he’s helpless to act. Her love negates possibility because it negates the worldly. Sarah is abandoning life in favor of eternal love. The End of the Affair is one of Greene’s Catholic novels; the characters struggle with God and faith. Sarah’s death indeed produces miracles; the miracles begin to play for Maurice. If he turns to God, will he have Sarah forever?
The space between Cécile and Philippe seems to shorten as the alternating passages converge on the London night 27 years ago, on the unsaid, on the unfulfilled now. Blondel isn’t interested in the eternal. Cécile and Philippe seek only verve, a speck of frisson. Such is middle age. Philippe hasn’t prayed for 27 years, when he wanted Cécile to leave London, leave him alone. But the miracle happens anyway, a predictable glitch for regular travelers on the SNCF. The train jilts and stops, knocking loose, at least, rather spare and hesitant words. It’s not yet nine; Cécile and Philippe tumble through conversation, caught in the undertow of a relentless wave of commuters. Another day begins.