The French love to give literary prizes and to make a fuss over the recipients, particularly if the book's just a little outre' and the author's barely postadolescent. One has only to remember the surpassing celebrity of the 18-year-old Franc,oise Sagan, when "Bonjour Tristesse" came out, to realize that Elvire Murail, even at the ripe old age of 25, is in a grand Gallic tradition.
The question is, despite the legitimacy and chic bestowed upon her by the awarding of Le Prix du Premier Roman (a special first novel award) and Le Prix George Sand, what's in it for an American reader? Jacket comparisons with Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and J.D. Salinger simply serve to make the copywriter for "Stairway C" an easy target for scorn. Characters and situations this charmless must be losing something in the translation! But also, to adapt a phrase, the French are different from you and me, and their tolerance for plotless preciosity is well known.
"Stairway C" is set in Greenwich Village, which must seem as romantically exotic to Parisian readers as the Left Bank does to some Manhattanites. But this slice of Village life is as weirdly off the map as Kafka's "America," and the arty dwellers therein sound about as colloquially American as the gangsters or cowboys in the popular French Tin-Tin comics -- which is to say, not very. The French reviewers have acclaimed this as hip bohemia, '80s-style, but it's really more quaint than cool.
Still, it might have come off as droll or amusing. Instead, it's baffling. And the book's sole clear idea is the old notion that every time you scratch a cynic, a sentimentalist bleeds.
The novel's narrator, Foster Tuncurry, who has an apartment on Stairway C in a Village apartment building, is a younger, rather neurasthenic free-lance art critic and full-time curmudgeon. Snapping (lame) sarcastic remarks, he wanders about his neighbors' rooms and through the local art galleries, behaving like a version of the George Sanders character in "All About Eve" -- if the screenplay had been by Marcel Proust and not Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It is, moreover, Tuncurry's "sacred principle . . . 'Why do something simply when you can make it complicated?' "
The reader learns the above when Tuncurry takes it upon himself to see that the ashes of Mrs. Bernhardt, a forlorn woman who has committed suicide in an apartment upstairs, are taken to Israel, the place she yearned for in life. The difficulty of arranging this, which becomes an obsession for him, causes Tuncurry to call upon his father, a diplomat who regards his eccentric son with easygoing affection.
But their banter ("My love to you, wretched son, and see you soon." "Fare thee well, ignominious father.") is so ludicrous in English that the novel's penultimate scene -- when Tuncurry, having decided he is a homosexual, introduces his chosen mate to Dad -- is just too silly to be taken seriously. And if it's meant to be farcical, it's merely foolish.
While there's much here that, in a better writer's hands, could be considered quintessentially or enjoyably French -- for example, the Stairway C flirtations punctuated by the Feydeau-esque noise of slamming doors -- there's no animating spirit, no joie de vivre. It's a recognizable recipe, with familiar ingredients, concocted by a chef whose apprenticeship isn't over. Sadly, Foster Tuncurry, though he obviously intrigues his creator, is a fairly unlikable fellow, even after he begins to indulge, in typically headstrong fashion, in a succession of good deeds. Worse, he's not at all interesting, and it's hard to care when he decides to admit that he can "love two opposite things at once" -- Renoir, as well as Bosch.
The story ends at Gethsemane, where Tuncurry at last scatters Mrs. Bernhardt's remains. The reader, meanwhile, frets a bit, having the equivalent of literary jet lag and uncertain whether any part of the journey has made any sense. Like snails or oysters or olives, such fiction is an acquired taste.