Night Without Day by Raphaele Billetdoux, translated by Derek Mahon (Viking: $14.95; 170 pages)
Given Paris in July, an accidental encounter in a cafe between a glamorous musician and a jaded author of scholarly monographs, you have all the essentials for one of the supremely Gallic, wonderfully sophisticated novels at which the French excel. Extrapolating from past experience, you'd have every reason to expect something slight but haunting. The woman, of course, would be married; the man easily able to afford the flowers, champagne, hotel suites and whimsical gifts these affairs require.
At the end of the book, they would part with great tenderness and rueful resignation. Unlike Americans, who tend to make a mess of such matters, the lives of hero and heroine would be enhanced. She would go back to her complaisant husband and her flourishing music career; he would return to his worldly responsibilities. There would be no regrets and no recriminations. You would put down the novel enviously, wishing life could be more like fiction, or the United States more like France.
But not this time. "Night Without Day" isn't a romantic souffle, but a dark story of pathological sexual obsession, played out in the feverish perceptions of Lucas, the student of language. As the sun sets over Paris, he sees "the most violent earthly landscapes, the most amazing animals . . . in a purple of dying angels of which nothing now shone but the refracted gold of trumpets." While he is in this hallucinatory state of mind, a gold lighter drops at his feet, the property of a young woman seated at the adjoining table.
Simultaneously thinking of the words girl and blood, he picks up the lighter and offers her a drink, surprising himself with the ordinariness of the action. She refuses, and he throws her lighter to the ground. The agreeable young Frenchman in the white summer suit has vanished; not to be seen again in that innocuous light.
Torment by Fantasies
Blanche, a violinist and singer with a performance scheduled for the following day at a seaside resort, is intrigued. "This time you really interest me," she says, and she accepts not only the drink, but dinner as well. In the course of that meal, they're struck by a simultaneous coup de foudre --"love at first sight" in English, literally thunder and lightning. Though Blanche and Lucas go their separate ways, each is tormented by erotic fantasies of the other.
The following day, Blanche reappears at the cafe where Lucas is waiting for her, and after a brief, elliptical conversation, embrace so passionately that the customers of the cafe call for their bills in embarrassment. When a waiter says, "There's a hotel across the street for that kind of thing," Lucas knocks him down, shouting, "That creep insulted my wife!"
By now it's apparent that Lucas is in the grip of a dangerous delusion. He refuses to let Blanche take a taxi to her concert engagement, and instead insists on driving her to the resort on his motorcycle. Though he roars away after leaving her at the door, he returns to the concert hall where his fantasies spin out of control. Bolting from the room during the performance, he rents a hotel suite. When waiting proves impossible, he runs half-dressed to the casino to meet Blanche at the end of the program. By now as obsessed as he, she promises to come to his room.
A Compressed Lifetime
In the next two days, Blanche and Lucas live an entire lifetime in that hotel suite, consumed by insatiable passion for each other. "Now that they'd slept together, now that they'd told each other the important things, what remained but days of rain, cold mornings, restaurant dinners, silent walks in search of a cinema, endurance and improvisation?" In short, reality.
So far, we've remained well within the established parameters of this worldly literary genre. Two people meet, desire each other, brush away all obstacles and prepare for the inevitable separation. This time, however, there are disconcerting intimations that parting will be neither easy nor pleasant.
Submitting physically and mentally to Lucas, Blanche seems ready to abandon her promising career, the recognition she has worked for all her life, to become his wife. "The hell with fame! The hell with casino managers! I want to be his wife! I have only gone through what I've gone through, in order, one day, to be loved as he loves me!"