A Life on Paper: Storiesby Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud
The celebrated career of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is well known to readers of French literature. This comprehensive collection—the first to be translated into English—introduces a distinct and dynamic voice to the Anglophone world. In many ways, Châteaureynaud is France’s own Kurt Vonnegut, and his stories are as familiar as they… See more details below
The celebrated career of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is well known to readers of French literature. This comprehensive collection—the first to be translated into English—introduces a distinct and dynamic voice to the Anglophone world. In many ways, Châteaureynaud is France’s own Kurt Vonnegut, and his stories are as familiar as they are fantastic.
A Life on Paper presents characters who struggle to communicate across the boundaries of the living and the dead, the past and the present, the real and the more-than-real. A young husband struggles with self-doubt and an ungainly set of angel wings in “Icarus Saved from the Skies,” even as his wife encourages him to embrace his transformation. In the title story, a father’s obsession with his daughter leads him to keep her life captured in 93,284 unchanging photographs. While Châteaureynaud’s stories examine the diffidence and cruelty we are sometimes capable of, they also highlight the humanity in the strangest of us and our deep appreciation for the mysterious.
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is the author of eight novels and almost one hundred short stories, and he is a recipient of the prestigious Prix Renaudot and the Bourse Goncourt de la nouvelle. His work has been translated into twelve languages.
Edward Gauvin has published Châteaureynaud’s work in AGNI Online, Conjunctions, Words Without Borders, The Café Irreal, and The Brooklyn Rail. The recipient of a residency from the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, he translates graphic novels for Tokyopop, First Second Books, and Archaia Studios Press.
John Crowley (Little, Big)
“These 22 curious tales verging on the perverse will strike new English readers of Châteaureynaud’s work as a wonderful find. Beautiful prose featuring ingenuous protagonists and clever, unexpected forays into horror are the hallmarks of these mischievous stories.”
The New York Times
- Small Beer Press
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A Life on Paperstories
By GEORGES-OLIVIER CHÂTEAUREYNAUD
Small Beer PressCopyright © 2010 Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Life on Paper
The Siegling-Brunet collection no doubt constitutes the most extensive gathering of photographs devoted to a single person. Kathrin Laetitia Siegling was born in London on January 12, 1939. On April 14, 1960, she died in Amiens, where she had moved with her husband François Brunet. She lived, then, some 7,750 days, during which, at the rate of some dozen shots every twenty-four hours, her picture was taken 93,284 times. To the best of my knowledge, the negatives were never preserved, but the 93,284 prints were. Meticulously numbered and filed, they fill five large metal trunks I acquired in 1974, at the public auction of the Brunet estate. Need I add that, at the time, I made off with the lot for a song? Neither principal ballerina nor movie star nor Olympic champion of any kind, nor even muse, to a famous man, Kathrin Siegling never in her life enjoyed any celebrity likely to confer upon her image any market value. Victims of a lack of imagination too common to waste time maligning, Brunet's heirs all but gave away the chests that contained, in its entirety, an iconography unique in all the world: the life of a woman captured and made fast hour after hour, from birth to death.
It seems an opportune time to provide a summary biography and sketch a portrait of the strange, tormented man that Anthony Mortimer Siegling, Kathrin's father, was in the last part of his life.
The fifth child of a Cheshire baronet, he was born in 1890 and fought on the front at Artois during the First World War. The eve of the Second found him successfully practicing business law in London. After a brief engagement, he married Louise Mary Atkinson. He was forty-eight years old. Louise Mary, thirty years his junior, died of puerperal fever shortly after giving birth to Kathrin. The cruel brevity of his happiness late in life explains for me what must be dubbed Anthony Siegling's "madness." Fiancé, husband, father, and widower in the space of little over a year, he never recovered from his wife's death. He could well have conceived a morbid rancor toward the child, as has been known to happen. He did nothing of the sort. Au contraire, he devoted toward her an affection legitimate in principle, but excessive in its manifestations-in one of them, at least.
The disappearance of someone dear to us leaves an emptiness to be filled in one way or another. Psychologists call this slow healing "grief work," and we know what risks we run when it is not carried out: asthenia, heightened vulnerability, wasting away ... Lost in suffering, Anthony Siegling got it in his head to recover Louise Mary, to resurrect her in Kathrin's barely formed person. Better yet, he would by means of the young girl take possession of all that had escaped him in her mother's life. He would spy upon her, keeping successive images of her childhood and adolescence, opposing their erosion by time's acid tides as no one before him had ever done.
His affluence facilitated the realization of what would have been, for a poorer man, a dream with no tomorrow. As his professional obligations prevented him from pursuing his project with the required diligence, he took on a photographer-in-residence to whom he gave the task of taking snapshots of Kathrin at regular intervals from morning till night. He himself had long practiced photography as a hobby. Every night, upon returning from the city, he proceeded to develop and print the day's harvest of pictures.
We must imagine what these twenty years of unyielding routine were for him and her. For twenty years, Anthony Siegling never went to bed without first passing through that doorway, bathed in red light, to his darkroom; without having selected, enlarged, developed and fixed, dried and glazed a dozen portraits of his daughter. What could his thoughts, his state of mind have been-his exaltation and, almost certainly, his occasional exhaustion? With his infinite patience, night after night, image after image, was he able, in discerning an almost imperceptible change in Kathrin's features, to surprise time at work? For truly, the mystery of time itself is caught in the continuity of the Siegling-Brunet collection. Kathrin's appearance remains unchanged from photo to photo, and yet the first show us a newborn, and the last a woman dead at twenty ... But the father's passion, in every sense of the word, cannot make us forget the daughter's. According to my investigation, seven photographers succeeded one another at her side. I located and interviewed several of them. The most intelligent and sensitive of them, John Cory, told me in no uncertain terms that he considered Anthony Siegling criminally insane, that the man had made of Kathrin's life a road to Calvary. She was thirteen when he took up his post at the Siegling household. He lasted only a few months, so great was his dislike for the job. I can still remember the very words he used to describe him. "Monsieur," he told me, "that was not photography. It was espionage, persecution, mental cruelty! The poor child seemed to me a hunted animal ... There was something about her of a doe who forever hears the twig snapping beneath the wolf 's paw. A sweet child, yes, but pale, pale, with a drawn look, a flicker of anguish in her eye ... And so many nervous tics! She blinked all the time. See here, it wasn't humane to put a little girl through all that. I chose to walk out on the whole mess. I told her father why. He wouldn't listen. He threw my last check in my face. We almost came to blows. Bah! He was insane, that's all there was to it!"
Kathrin died after falling down a flight of stairs at her in-laws' house in Amiens, in the spring of 1960. She had just married François Brunet. She had met him during a ceremony commemorating Haig's Army and the combat her father had seen. François Brunet was a press photographer. The day they met, he was covering the event for a major regional paper.
As for me, despite all the rejections I've come up against so far, I have not despaired of someday convincing a patron to finance the museum of my dreams, where the collection chance has entrusted to me will finally be exhibited in its entirety. For I cannot help but believe the destiny of Kathrin Siegling-Brunet and the 93,284 photos that recreate her now belong to the artistic heritage of humanity. Lozère, March 1989
Excerpted from A Life on Paper by GEORGES-OLIVIER CHÂTEAUREYNAUD Copyright © 2010 by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is the author of nine novels, two young adult novels, and over one hundred short stories. Despite a lifelong fear of flying, he has been to Peruhis only time on a planeand lived to pen a travel memoir about the experience. He is the recipient of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle (for short stories), Prix Giono, Prix Valéry Larbaud, and the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. His work has been translated into fourteen languages.
Born in Paris in 1947, Châteaureynaud was a solitary child who became a voracious and unprejudiced reader, ingesting Treasure Island as avidly as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He studied English at the Sorbonne, discovering Stevenson, Shelley, Stoker, and Wells, and later took a degree in library science from the École Nationale Supérieure des Bibliothèques. In 1968, he embarked on a series of odd jobsincluding antiques dealer and auto assembly line laborerthat comprised, in his words, an “apprenticeship in human nature,” cementing his sympathy for the marginal, outcast figures who would become his luckless, well-meaning, Everyman heroes and narrators. Grasset published his first collection in 1973, Le fou dans la chaloupe.
With novelist Hubert Haddad, and fellow Goncourt winners Frédéric Tristan and sinologist Jean Lévi, Châteaureynaud is a founding member of the contemporary movement La Nouvelle Fiction: “New” because it rose up against the prevailingly minimalist and confessional tendencies (autofiction) of recent French writing, seeking to rouse it from what critic Jean-Luc Moreau called “the slumber of psychological realism,” and to restore myth, fable, and fairy tale to a place of primacy in fiction.
In 1983 and 1990, Châteaureynaud was a representative of the Foreign Services Ministry to Quebec and then to Greece. He has been consistently involved with the Centre National du Livre and the SGDL (Société des Gens de Lettres de France). He plays an active part in fostering new talent, serving on the juries of such diverse prizes as the Fondation BNP-Paribas Young Writers Award, the international Prix Prométhée de la nouvelle, the Prix Renaudot, and the Prix Renaissance. Châteaureynaud sees his enthusiastic participation in these institutions as a way of repaying the literary community that has allowed him the luxury of dedication to his craft. An Officier des Arts et Lettres of France, he is currently the editorial director of foreign literature at Editions Dumerchez. In 2006, he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
Edward Gauvin has published Châteaureynaud’s work in AGNI Online, The Southern Review, Conjunctions, Harvard Review, Words Without Borders, LCRW, Postscripts, Epiphany, The Café Irreal, Eleven Eleven, Sentence, and The Brooklyn Rail. A graduate of the Iowa Workshop, he has received a Fulbright grant as well as fellowships from the Centre National du Livre, the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) and the Clarion Foundation and residencies from the Maison des Écritures Midi-Pyrénées, Ledig House, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. Other translations of his have been featured or are forthcoming in PEN America, Tin House, Interfictions 2, Subtropics, Silk Road, Two Lines, and Absinthe. A consulting editor for graphic literature at Words Without Borders, he translates comics for Archaia, First Second, and Tokyopop. He has lived in Austin, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New York, Taipei, and Amiens, France.
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