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The New York Times Book Review
Where Are You Dying Tonight? By Michel Deon. Translated by Julian Evans. (Atlantic Monthly, $16.95.)
The Washington Post
The Novelist Who Wasn't There
Where Are You Dying Tonight? is the first English translation from the works of Michel Deon, a member of the Acadamie Francaise since 1978. A purported biography of the late Stanislas Beren, it portrays a man of letters who cultivates a mystique throughout a career spanning four decades. The biographer is the son of his best friend, Andre Garrett, whom Beren met when he was "really born," that is, upon setting foot in a Parisian school in 1925. Fate being kind, Garrett inherited a publishing house that he passed onto his son. And the rest is literary history.
Fans of story-telling magicians such as Calvino, Borges and Nabokov will begin this novel with great anticipation. A fictional publisher writing a fictional biography of a fictional author who composes fictions! We have all the elements for a dazzling display of post-modern pyrotechnics. But page after page we are met with a rather conventional pastiche. The novel is strewn with journal entries, passages from Beren's novels, letters and even poems, all skillfully rendered in this fine translation. The biographer is aware that the relation between a writer's works and his experience is often elusive, but he is mainly concerned with clearing up truths about Beren's life. Deon has a far too pat, academic sense of the difference between life and literature to get down to some hard entertaining play. He seems to be at a loss as to where to find the fuse that might light up these explosive elements. At any rate, his narrator shows up without matches. Such a smug and fatuous man of letters served as a wonderful foil for Nabokov in Pale Fire, and it's a cause for deep regret that Deon did not similarly mine the full comic poential of his character's limitations.
Where Are You Dying Tonight? is Evelyn Waugh's pun on Beren's greatest commercial success, a novel title in English "Where are You Dining Tonight?" (Waugh's quip is the epigraph to the original French "Dejeuner de Soleil.") Beren meets Waugh in Hyde Park; Waugh produces his pun. Period. This lack of resonance is typical of the novel's many literary details, witty, well researched yet one-dimensional. There is also unwitting damage: Beren's best-selling story of an old European rake's love affair with a much younger New England blond beauty was already told for laughs by Nabokov. After Lolita, it's impossible to read the following without howling: "She explored love with an enthusiasm whose innocence and purity still scare me when I think about it."
Yet Beren is a dark multi-faceted character. Promiscuous, elusive, he plays the people in his life for patsies, including his devoted publisher (at least in the reader's opinion). " The only truth which mattered to him was his own," the biographer tells us. Beren may well have been insufferable, a demanding, devouring presence. We begin to suspect an entirely different version of this great writer's life. Escaping political turmoil in Serbia, he reaches France, marries rich (the narrator's aunt), has a burst of creativity in the '30s, but mostly writes rather vacuous society novels inspired by his sexual conquests. Even his dense biographer can't help but note: "I sometimes suspected in him a great weariness with the life he led ordinarily, with the whole social parade… even though he was so much at his ease in it that he would never give it up." Deon's talent is such that he makes us long for the unauthorized biography.
Although Deon is no postmodernist, at his best he concocts inventive fictions for Veren. There is the intriguing "Countdown" in which a Sorbonne lecturer meets himself as an old man (what a fertile metaphor for a biographer, utterly wasted); "Cryptogram," a vicious intrigue of seduction in the spirit of "Dangerous Liasons"; and the wonderful "L is for London," a collection of stories beginning with an inspired tale of an English baker so enamored of Giorgione's painting "The Tempest" that he becomes a character in it. Would that Deon had written any of these books!
Deon is also a gifted miniaturist; the novel is studded with numerous vividly drawn minor characters. The best is Mario Mendosa, the Portuguese criminal and crime writer who produces several successful novels for the Crime Pays series that keeps Beren's artsy publisher in the black. Not only is this one of the best jokes in the books, it is also another example of how Deon fails to make full use of such potentially rich material.
Where Are You Dying Tonight? is not all that it might have been, but is its entertaining and suggestive. Its promise makes us eagerly await further translations of this prolific writers fiction.