Catherine Cusset, the prolific French novelist, whose every next novel I purchase when it has barely arrived at my bookstore and avidly start reading on my return home, delivered one of her greatest, most compelling, most captivating novels yet. La Définition du Bonheur was published in August of this year. Narrator time and plot time take the reader into the beginning of 2021. It’s a rare example of author, narrator and plot time merging. The novel juxtaposes the lives of two women, both French, the one, Ève, living and working, and being successful, in New York, the other, Clarisse, leading a hardscrabble life in Paris. Both have children. The relation between the two women is revealed late in the story, when the rapids of the novel’s counterpointing flows increase in frequency to turn into the churning whitewater of the gruesome finale. Few novelists have Cusset’s gift of crafting the most powerful literary fiction from plain, efficient, unembellished language.
One of the cats is on my bed. He is always at my side when I’m in bed. The other cat spends her nights somewhere else in the house – I don’t know where. She’s always on my lap when I’m on the couch reading a paper or a book, or working on my laptop, or watching Netflix or Amazon Prime. The natives of this country have a reputation for boorishness and crass stupidity. They are generally less than hygienic, and money is the only thing that gets them out of bed and into the streets. Throughout the covid-19 crisis, at every next spike, this country continues to be among the worst hit. I am never infected with anything, ever, not even with the common cold. I’m imperishable and everlasting. Yet, I had my jabs. Of course. The COP26 event in Glasgow has been a disaster. Every such event has been and always will be. Just look at yourselves. Think of yourselves.
When I think of the cats, when I consider the one that’s on my bed now, it occurs to me what a terrible hazard humans are, myself included, how horrible it must be to be depending on them for food, shelter, life.
Cusset’s unsettling definition of happiness – whose happiness anyway? Ève’s? Clarisse’s? each her own? which happiness in the first place? – is so powerful, it cannot but bring on these musings.