A Brief Stay of the Living

Year: 
2001

With her fourth novel, Bref séjour chez les vivants, Marie Darrieussecq explores innovative ideas concerning the possibility of today's novel and she creates a world in which the reader must actively participate in order to understand, perhaps in reading the novel twice, or more. The main characters of Bref séjour chez les vivants are a woman and her three daughters, but there is no dialogue in this novel, it is entirely interior monologue. This monologue is in a constant state of flux, uses more than one language, principally French, but with English and Spanish as well, songs, and childhood phrases among other elements. But why the supernatural title? In this novel, as in most of Darrieussecq's work, there is a phantom. Here it is the phantom of a boy, the younger brother of the family, who drowned at the age of three.
     The main themes of Bref séjour chez les vivants are the manner in which intelligence and memory function, the subjectivity of the perception of events, the phenomenon concerning the existence of a sixth sense, and the relations which make up a family. Without a doubt a contemporary work, Darrieussecq has written this novel, which she saw as a very difficult undertaking, with rigor, and she has succeeded.

Sarah Feely

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Critics on A Brief Stay With the Living, 2001
Translated from the French by Piotr Skuza

What unites phantoms, memory, and the sea? Looking for an answer, you will immerse yourself in Marie Darrieussecq’s novels, in particular in A Brief Visit With the Living, a boggling synthesis of her universe lying between the fantasy and common memory, the flux of strangeness and the reflux of the known.

The World Online // What Are/Were You Thinking About? (possible titles)  

On reading the text, the reader can restore a narrative continuity in this fragmented novel: a woman is “recruited” in order to penetrate other people’s minds. Her name is Anne. Within 24 hours, she will deliver the cerebral contents of the various members of her family. The reader is going to follow the fast and disordered movements of their thoughts, memories, phantasms, resentment, and confused hopes. This could boil down to a family story because deep inside we wind up getting to know that family: the mother, John, her first husband living in Gibraltar, Momo, her current partner, Jeanne, Anne, and Nore, her three daughters, Pierre, Jeanne’s dead husband who drowned, and Nore’s lovers. We get to know them all, but it is much more than a mere family story. It would be lacking in connections, meetings, and concrete events. The transference is no longer genealogical but fluid, telepathic. Everything happens in an alternating flux of a circulation transmitting information from one brain to another, from one consciousness to a different one, from one memory to a new memory, all this in a universe where the global brain is no longer a vain expression, where some engage in experimenting or even realizing it. “Because on the surface of the world, and probably beyond, there is only one consciousness, floating, intact, but also fractioned into individuals among whom agents are selected, particles that are intense enough to be able to penetrate the global consciousness – or, on the contrary, sufficiently forthcoming; empathetic would be the word, porous, and permeable to wander towards the unison of the great consciousness and perceive its pulsations.” The image of this brain searching for otherness and a “cockpit,” present already at the birth of phantoms, is that of a hermit crab without its old shell, looking, all stripped, for a new one. And thus functions the master brain, finding a temporary habitat in the consciousnesses of the other female members of the family or in its own, until Jeanne’s accident at the end of the book, when two consciousnesses collide in a substantial clash during which one projects the film of her life before dying while the other comes to rejoin her at the same moment. The novel ends the same way as it starts, thus making the closure exact and circular, the same as the complete cycle of the brain and day.  

Marie Darrieussecq’s fourth novel, A Brief Visit With the Living, is most definitely her most striking and strongest novel from the literary standpoint. The challenges which she takes up by deconstructing the narration, and making a vivid use of the trembling of consciousnesses and interior whirring of voices indicate that the author does not choose to follow the path of simplicity. This can sometimes run the risk of making the reader bored and confused because of the difficulty they might experience while trying to reach the heights of the novel and connecting its dots, which altogether become ever smaller as the reader progresses into the novel. Simultaneously, the novel appears to be a brilliant synthesis of the author’s singular universe whose elements are to be found in all of her books: familial psychology, relationship between mothers and daughters (Breathing Underwater), border between the real and fantastic (My Phantom Husband), and omnipresence of the sea, its movements and changing colors, its paradoxically monstrous yet silent, and soothing yet disquieting rhythm in all the novels. The sea’s presence at the visible level produces here what the presence of a phantom produces at the invisible level: movements of the waves, connections that are ceaselessly constructed and deconstructed, an alternation. It provides the poetic legitimacy of that which appears to be merely sci-fi tricks from the brains penetrating entirely those of others, like those of the children in The Village of the Damned, all the way to the recruited who get remotely manipulated by the operators such as John Oppenheimer’s Candidate Mandchou. Here, the brains become “sea-esque” just like many other physical and visible places (“the sea should have been seen at its maximum, at full the brain like a sponge”), and the sea itself also possesses the qualities of the brain: “the sea that stocks and gets ready and waggles and goes on, and calms and starts again, blue brain.” This exchange of properties allows the book to develop like an epitome of the novel as it signals the possibility of total ubiquity: instead of the novelist-demiurge being by definition everywhere at the same time, they can get there via the image thanks to the idea of a global brain whose elements are all connected just like all the elements of the sea allowing one of its parts to be “here and there, at the same time.”  

Without being a novel about globalization, A Brief Visit With the Living makes the use of modern technologies of communication in order to allow instantaneous and simultaneous connection at various points in space as well as reception of the world “online”(not avoiding, here and there, the modality of certain references or onomatopoeia). The temporary unity of the narration (24 hours not lived in the same rhythm by all the characters, as time difference demands) is constantly perturbed by its spatial dispersal. At one point we are in Jeannne’s place in Buenos Aires , in her memory touring the world, at other times in Paris , at Anne’s place, in the family house in the Landes, where Nore and the mother live and where many common memories meet. And so even though, in the juxtaposition of various materials occupying those brains, we manage to piece together the history of that family, the explosion of data and the atomization of the points in space acknowledge the weaknesses and imbalances: mixture of languages (French, Spanish, and English) and departures more or less agreed upon turn the clan members into beings of in-between and border, “all exiled into a geography of dreams.” The great beauty of this book lies in the process of unfolding the lives in present or past images while randomly distributing primary or secondary thoughts and introducing an equally abstract plan. Thus, each brain we enter gains a little of distinction and depth; a direct contact with what touches them makes them even more vital, singular, and vibrant. A Brief Visit With the Living is ultimately a surprising book on the functioning of intelligence and memory, and on the stylistic translation of the sensible disorder reigning in the brain. The related experiences, the scientific and casual mastery of different occurrences of telekinesis, teleportation, hypermnesia or amnesia, all this contributes to the encyclopedic dimension of this novel of “inwardness,” one that effaces the boundaries between the outside and inside. We are reminded of this dimension by momentary collages distributed in the text, e.g. in songs, in particular the chorus adapted from Bashung, “I made the season in a cranial box,” in journal articles, horoscopes, Descartes’s discourse on spirit, etc. Our thoughts are formed in response to whatever happens, possibly another beautiful definition of the novel.

Tiphaine Samoyault

“The talented novelist of Pig Tales returns with a book about memory and absence, in which she takes the risks of experimentation: a successful bet. … Escape, evasion, disappearance, presence-absence, somnambulism, accidents of memory: the novel with all these themes in infinite variations, in fragments and collages, using solely the interior monologue. The flexible and inventive writing uses all methods available which appear as foreign bodies within the text with their proper typography, or those that melt into it like intimate thoughts…”

Isabelle Martin

“In this book, superbly and perfectly entitled A Brief Visit With the Living, an additional degree is crossed, but it’s more than just a degree. It’s an entire scale! The mental heights have themselves disappeared from which one counted the ‘grains of consciousness and memory.’ There’s no place, no support, not even a fragile one, where to observe and describe the distortions of the real. We are now in their midst, exposed to the same deformations, and similar drifts. It’s the audacity of the size, and the reader can merely sense and admit to being disoriented from his regular paths. Where are we then? Inside the heads, consciousnesses, and spirits… The cognizant novelistic machine records their thoughts and feelings not in order to reenact them, but to leave them in this state in their proper area. This sometimes creates the sensation of confusion. The punctuation participates in this disarray, to which a trivial syntax could not do justice. But nothing is trivial in the novel, which the author invites us to share. Discomfort is guaranteed.”

Patrick Kéchichian

“If taken for a classical tale of unsuccessful grief, the novel becomes a proposition of the aesthetics of figuration through its descriptions of bruised bodies.”

Eric Loret

“Marie Darrieussecq breaks down all the clichés. A blessing… Marie Darrieussecq picks up Virginia Woolf and Joyce where they left literature, i.e. on the site of delicate or profane sensations. With the wanderings of a little destroyer of clichés, she lets in a sacred draft.”

Jacques-Pierre Arnette

“Darrieussecq’s virtuosity is never complimentary or not even light. It’s a strange and inimitable beauty of profundities.”

Patrick Besson

“This is undoubtedly the best book by this author at the moment. One takes to it fast.”

Sylvain Bourmeau