Novella a Day in May 2019 #2

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2014, trans. Ros Schwartz 2015) 194 pages

Easily the worst part of my day is my commute. If London rush hour had existed in fourteenth century Italy, I’m sure Dante would have made it one of his circles of hell.

But if Guylain Vignolles was on my morning tube, I’m sure things would be vastly improved. This titular hero is thirty-six years old and lives alone save for a goldfish named Rouget de Lisle V. He finds people difficult and so he has become something of a loner.

“His aim was to be neither good-looking nor ugly, neither fat nor thin. Just a vague shape hovering on the edge of people’s field of vision. To blend into his surroundings until he negated himself, remaining a remote place never visited.”

However, there is one point in his day when he does not blend into his surroundings. On his morning commuter train he reads the passengers excerpts from random books. They are pages he has rescued from his job at a book-pulping plant, a job he hates. Stealing the pages away from under the surveillance cameras of his horrible boss and disturbingly enthusiastic colleague is an act of rebellion, of resistance against the disregard shown to the books and all they contain.

“When the train pulled out of the station and the passengers alighted, an outside observer would have had no trouble noticing how Guylain’s listeners stood out from the rest of the commuters. Their faces did not wear that off-putting mask of indifference. They all had the contented look of an infant that has drunk its fill of milk.”

Despite his odd manner and social reluctance, Guylain does have friends. There is the security guard who only speaks in a very particular poetic style:

“The day he discovered the alexandrine, Yvon Grimbert had fallen head over heels in love. Faithfully serving the twelve-syllable line had become his sole mission on earth.”

There is also his ex-boss, who had a terrible accident at work:

“Giuseppe Carminetti, former chief operator of the TERN treatment and recycling company, ex-alcoholic and ex-biped, was going to do his utmost to recover the books that contained what was left of his pins.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Giuseppe’s legs were pulped along with some books and subsequently turned into paper. He is now fixated on hunting down all the books that were printed on such paper, thereby reclaiming his legs.

You may have realised by now that you need a pretty high tolerance for whimsy when reading The Reader on the 6.27. I have a high threshold and so I really enjoyed this novella. The idiosyncratic characters are still believable, and their relationships touching. The power of the spoken word and of literature in all its forms is comically evoked – particularly when Guylain gets recruited to read at a retirement home – but is still a powerful message.

Guylain’s reading matter changes when he finds a memory stick in his usual seat which contains the diary of Julie. While it’s undoubtedly intrusive that he reads the diary its believable that he is trying to do so in order to return the stick to its owner.

Unlike with whimsy, my tolerance for male protagonists falling in love with objectified female fantasy figures is rock-bottom. For me, Didierlaurent got the balance for this part of the story right, and Julie has strong, authentic female voice.

There’s no sense at any time that this sweet story isn’t going to play out in a truly cockle-warming way so it’s not a surprising read, but then it’s not trying to be. A tale of outsiders who, though they would never realise it, are absolutely charming.


20 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2019 #2

    • It is quirky, its very sweet but not overly so, it’s very well-judged.

      I really enjoyed doing this last year but I always worry I’m not going to make it! Hopefully there will be 31 novella posts by the end of the month 🙂


  1. I loved this! I still think of it now again, especially when during a recent small fire at a scheme a tenant came hobbling out with a fish hastily transferred to a casserole dish. The book was right, there is a difference between living alone and living with a fish. I loved his awkward rapport with fellow commuters, I loved the leg thing, loved everything about this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope everyone was OK, Lucy? Certainly a fish in a casserole dish would fit right in to this world. There’s definitely a difference to living alone and living with a fish, and a fish doesn’t bring up a giant hairball on your newly washed bedsheets (its quite a morning I’m having 😀 )

      Awkward rapport is absolutely right – its really a wonderful characterisation and a lovely read.


  2. This does sound rather lovely and nicely done. Funnily enough, I passed on a copy of this in one of the local charity shops recently as I’d previously formed the impression that it might be too sweet and whimsical (for that read “annoying”) for my tastes. Now I’m wondering if I ought to nip back to see if it’s still there as you make it sound very appealing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is sweet and whimsical, but I would have found it annoying too if it was too much so. For me the balance was right, It’s a nice, heart-warming read, a good one for when you need a break from grim reality!


  3. My whimsy threshold is quite low so I avoided this one for a while but I was pleasantly surprised when I finally got around to it. Much sympathy with the commuting. It’s a long time since I’ve had to do that but the memory lingers on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If someone tried to read to me on a train, I’d hit him over the head with my Kindle and eat his fish fried on two slices of bread. I don’t think I’m very good at whimsy… 😉 I do love the idea of the pulped legs though…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Many, many years ago I flirted with the idea of going back to the job I had prior to having my first baby. The job was in government and really not family-friendly but my boss had offered me a tempting project. I started investigating childcare and working out the logistics and it was ALL VERY DIFFICULT AND STRESSFUL. My husband asked “What is it that you would really look forward to if you went back to work?” I thought for a while and then said “Reading my book on the tram in the morning.” So yeah, I didn’t go back.

    Liked by 1 person

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