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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Portrait of the Writer
as a Domesticated Animal

Lydie Salvayre

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To purchase Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal

Title: Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal
Author: Lydie Salvayre
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 204 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal - US
Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal - UK
Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal - Canada
Portrait de l'écrivain en animal domestique - Canada
Portrait de l'écrivain en animal domestique - France
  • French title: Portrait de l'écrivain en animal domestique
  • Translated by William Pedersen

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Our Assessment:

B : doesn't find quite the right balance between satire and farce

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 6/9/2007 Delphine Peras
The Independent . 10/3/2010 Lee Rourke
The LA Times . 28/2/2010 Susan Salter Reynolds
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2007 Warren Motte

  From the Reviews:
  • "Lydie Salvayre force ici le trait avec une telle cocasserie que ce nouveau roman tourne opportunément à la farce et non au pensum moralisateur." - Delphine Peras, L'Express

  • "Salvayre has created a satirical plunge into the abyss infused with absurdities and truisms alike. At once hilarious and damning, the novel can both repel and soothe. Perhaps most telling of all, like all great writers, Salvayre understands that all biography is fiction." - Lee Rourke, The Independent

  • "Like the rest of Salvayre’s work, this book is smart and pungent, simultaneously amusing and sobering. Swiftian in its conception, her Portrait puts satire to a variety of uses. Chief among them is a reflection upon art and power, and more precisely the ways in which the latter may tame the former, inveigling it to lie on its back in order to have its belly scratched." - Warren Motte, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal the narrator is hired by "Tobold the Hamburger King" to write his biography ("his gospel (that was the word he used, half-joking, half-serious)". Tobold ("You can call me Jim", he eventually tells her -- but she never does) is the incarnation of the Free Market run rampant -- or at least how one (and specifically a French author) might imagine that:

     Today, his overwhelming notoriety extends to the four corners of the earth.
     He's the richest businessman in the world.
     And the most feared.
       Tobold is entirely larger than life, with a New York apartment (sic) with 32 floors, 146 rooms, and 130 bathrooms, and a car for every day of the year (yes, 365 of them). He hob-nobs with the rich and famous (several of whom have cameo appearances here, including Sharon Stone and Bill Gates).
       Tobold has ruthlessly pushed himself to the top:
     Tobld the Hamburger King prospered by eliminating everything in his path that could be eliminated. Elimination leads to prosperity, that was his motto.
       And he believes:
One world is falling apart. But another is being born, ushered in by the ineffable movement of the Free Market. This new world will sweep away the last remaining Christian principles that over the last twenty centuries have shown themselves to be incapable of thwarting the cynicism in human instinct or of uprooting the horror in our hearts
       The money is too good for the writer to turn down, but she struggles constantly to maintain some semblance of integrity. Tobold is rarely presented as sympathetic, but his luxurious lifestyle has its appeal, and even as she complains about what a terrible man he is, and how badly he treats everyone, she can't (and doesn't really want to) escape: like a domesticated animal, the life is too good for her to really want to venture out into the (literary) wild again .....
       She does moan a lot about her lot:
     How long could I keep quiet, I asked myself, standing by and watching Tobold behave -- to my mind -- both brutally and cynically ? What was worse was that not only did I have to justify his actions to myself, but also to glorify them in catechistical writings.
       The biography -- or at least the book at hand -- certainly winds up being a far from glorified account, but she does drone on about Tobold and his behavior at considerable length (while (un/happily) remaining at his side ...). This is not as much fun as it should be: Tobold simply isn't plausible enough, too much of what he does recounted in simplistic shorthand form, with Tobold such an über-capitalist, of the worst free market (and chemical-additive adding) sort -- and never mind how he treats women ... -- , that he's little more than a cartoon. But unfortunately Salvayre doesn't commit to that approach entirely either: for a cartoon he's not a source of much amusement, as the narrative moves uneasily between farce and satire.
       (One has to wonder whether in making Tobold an American success-story -- at age 25 he abandoned France to make his fortune: "On March 15, 1975 he flew to America with a small Bible as his only piece of luggage" -- Salvayre hasn't over-reached; as sure as her portrait of the French labor situation was in The Award (still her best novel), here she deals with globalized capitalism (and specifically American-style entrepreneurship) largely unconvincingly.)
       The narrating author's dilemma -- is she selling out too much, or even complicit ? -- is also rich material that is under-utilized. The narrator beats herself up about being such a toady, but doesn't really grapple with her dilemma as much as she might. This, at least, is fairly well resolved -- but Salvayre shows no subtlety even here, in presenting this triumph, when the author finally figures out how to come to terms and deal with what she's been through:
     This project brought me back to life.
     I rediscovered composure and distance.
     And my pride, in a way, started to recover.
       Yeah, well, good for her -- but if this is the sort of writing she churns out then all her talk about being a real writer (as opposed to a bought hack) sounds completely unconvincing. Self-help books and fawning biographies are probably what she's best suited for .....
       Salvayre is a good and smart enough writer to offer some solid and sharp social and economic criticism in Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal, but (unusually for her) doesn't take nearly enough risks in a narrative where she shies away from exploiting too much potential in both strands (Tobold's story, and the writer's).

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 December 2009

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Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal: Reviews: Lydie Salvayre: Other books by Lydie Salvayre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Lydie Salvayre has written numerous books.

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© 2009-2010 the complete review

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