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A BREATH OF AIR : by Dorothee Letessier, translated by Matthew Ward (Penguin: $4.95; 128 pp.)

March 03, 1985|RICHARD EDER

In a way, this is a French version of "The Road to Wigan Pier." Like Orwell's book, it fleshes out a world quite far from its readers: that of a working class imprisoned in its circumstances. Like Orwell's book, it has a touch of educated impersonation to it; a hairline separation, chilly and lucid, between the writer and the material.

Dorothee Letessier's book is fiction, not reportage; yet in its own way, it is a documentary, as well. It is the story of Maryvonne, a factory worker, and her brief, hallucinatory and touching attempt to escape from her life by running away from home. It is not a Wigan-like poverty she is running from. It is contemporary European; bleakness rather than misery.

Maryvonne and her husband, a fellow worker, have a house, enough to eat, a television set, a paid vacation and a child whose principal deprivation is the prospect of a life quite as constricted as that of its parents. The punishing and monotonous routine of factory work--but it could be, for Letessier, that of a clerk or shop employee as well--has eroded their spirits and tightened their horizon into a noose.

The noose will not strangle; it will merely subject. And so, Maryvonne slips it briefly and then, comically, mournfully, has nowhere to go, really. The bird cage is left open, and there, hopping only an inch or two beyond the doorway, is the bird. Letessier makes it a quite individual bird with a hop of its own.

Maryvonne had taken a week's sick leave from the factory, fed up with the endless procession of demands advancing toward her, in the shape of machine parts. At home, the demands--her husband's, her child's--keep coming. So she goes.

A tiny escape: 25 miles by bus through the cold Brittany countryside, from her home in St. Brieuc to the tourist port of Paimpol. In a reduced world, even the flights are reduced. She has left a note for her husband--"I'm going out for a breath of air. See you"--but she will spend the night.

She has a big tea, she checks into a hotel, she eats dinner, reads a book, takes a bubble bath. It is the unspeakable--and unspeakably frail--luxury of being on her own. She gloats, fantasizes, thinks of her daily life at home, of "my life without me."

But what is me? The pastries in the pastry shop, the minimal comfort of the off-season hotel, the stiff dinner in the nearly empty dining room, the cheap novel she can read without interruption, two hours at a hairdresser's. In Maryvonne's shrewd, lilting monologue, these are conveyed as untold wealth and tacky impermanence, both at the same time.

She fantasizes, and since she is on the left and an active unionist, her fantasies are on the left as well. She is a beautiful stranger, bearing a message across Siberia for the Russian Revolution. Ideology doesn't hold, though; it turns cozy. She curls up beside Lenin, who has an earache. In the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Germany, she is not Rosa Luxemburg, but Rosa's sister, who plays dreamily on the piano while the workers march outside.

Maryvonne's fantasies, like her life at home and her Paimpol fling, are bridled. In her bubble bath, she is Marilyn Monroe, but then she goes on to inventory her hairy legs and knobby knees. She hears two lovers talking intensely at the next table. "I had my own sweet talker once," she reflects, "and it was only when he stopped talking that I started getting old." She imagines going out with a reporter who once interviewed her during a factory strike. He had told her to say whatever came to mind. The only thing that came to her mind, she recalls, was that he was handsome, "but he seemed to be pretty well informed on that score already." Longing and a practical skepticism are the poles of her character.

That is her charm and the charm of "A Breath of Air." The notion of escape is not particularly original, nor is the portrait of the bleak skin of welfare that barely covers the punishing routine of workers' lives. It is a small book, almost a sketch. What gives it life is Maryvonne's spirit, doled out in limited measures, but the real thing; so that the surprise ending, a cool mix of absurdity and heartbreak, fills us entirely.

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