The French Father is about two very different men buried in the Parisian cemetery of Montparnasse.
One man, Alain Elkann’s father, is initially described as a strict man, then list after list of synonyms are used thereafter. Elkann’s father was a businessman, president of the Jewish community, and dressed impeccably for all occasions, even the swimming pool.
The other man is Roland Topor, screenwriter of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, and self-appointed representative of the artistic lifestyle. Topor maintained all the necessary exuberance, creativity and ill-health that a moderately successful artistic career requires.
It is an elegant contrast, with an engaging conversation at its core, as the two gentlemen find that, despite their differences, there is little else to do in the afterlife but to speak to one another.
This says little, however, about the author’s loss, despite the author’s presence in the novel.
The story, in fact, is not driven by this, but instead by a writer’s inquisitiveness. Elkann creates a conversation between these men out of seeming curiosity and, for all the interest the discussion obviously holds for Elkann, much of the rest of the tale is structured as an interruption of this one main dialogue.
So simple is the premise that Elkann’s imagined eavesdropping lacks substance enough to hold the novel together on its own. The majority of what is recounted is instead Elkann’s own time spent researching Topor’s life, as more and more detail is given over to the minutiae of the creative man’s previous activities.
In doing so Elkann joins distinguished company, as The French Father quickly becomes another book about the act of writing, waylaid by what Roland Barthes, Topor’s contemporary in Paris, referred to as the ‘muck of language’. So much so, that the Elkann of the novel is engulfed by research about the book we are meant to be reading. Even a phone call to his former wife breaks little ground. She had met Topor, yes; they had had mutual friends, yes; and that was all.
Yet, Elkann is also experienced enough to know the trap well. Elkann makes careful, subtle steps towards authorship and the fragility of his attempts are obvious, and with this, his characters are made all the more delicate, more human.
Topor’s family and friends are ephemeral. They are surprised by Elkann’s inquries, argumentative and shaken by Elkann’s attempts to talk to them. Their descriptions contradict as much as elucidate the character of the middle-aged Topor. His son frequently refuses to meet with Elkann, only to be charming and friendly when finally confronted outside the younger artist’s flat.
Topor’s sister, on the other hand, is all too willing to help in prolonging the memory of her brother’s life and work, but visibly empties of this energy and zeal during Elkann’s first meeting with her. She appears as a bird of prey, sharp-eyed and alert, but faces the prospect of a life without her brother with quietness.
In these descriptions Elkann excels. Topor’s son dramatically wavers between anxieties, Topor’s sister entertains a deep sadness, and his assorted friends and colleagues are a mish-mash of misinformation, as if none knew the man at all.
Elkann himself is also ephemeral, as The French Father tells us nothing of him either. Some would say, in a change of form.
Elkann has been described in The New York Times as ‘extremely frank’.
Supposedly ‘surprising’, given his highly-public life. But what is so surprising? His life is already everywhere, already public; his reputation a question openly discussed, at least by some. So, what timidity does he overcome to be so earnest or open with us?
There is none. So let no one continue to praise his honesty in light of The French Father. Instead, what is to be praised is his bravery in the face of failure. His ability to promise a specific story, fall short of this and still mesmerise is profound.
Any Cop?: Elkann creates a firework show of his failure, and entertains us with characters that would never have prospered. The French Father is no memoir or autobiography, and the fiction is all the stronger for it.
Charles J Haynes