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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Novel to Read on the Train

Dumitru Tsepeneag

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To purchase A Novel to Read on the Train

Title: A Novel to Read on the Train
Author: Dumitru Tsepeneag
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Novel to Read on the Train - US
A Novel to Read on the Train - UK
A Novel to Read on the Train - Canada
Roman de gare - Canada
Roman de gare - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • French title: Roman de gare
  • Translated and with a Preface by Alistair Ian Blyth

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neatly done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Though titled A Novel to Read on the Train, this novel is hardly the kind of 'roman de gare' (so the French title) that suggests -- "pulp fiction, the kind of schlock you buy on the station concourse to read on the train, the forerunner of the 'airport novel'", as translator Alistair Ian Blyth explains in his Preface. Nor is it set on a train; indeed, part of the point of the novel is how little discernible progress is made by its characters -- and there is, in fact, not even a train for the characters to miss, despite the action being set around a railway station: among the bits of information from beyond that do make it to here is that: "the local train won't be making any more stops at our station". For all the busy-ness of the cast of characters, it's largely as though they're in an isolated loop (and then spiral) all to themselves.
       The action in A Novel to Read on the Train revolves around the making of a film -- but, as someone already points out early on: "We're not filming we're going round in circles". The director has -- or reaches for -- a vision, and a certain way of working -- even if cast and crew don't really get it. One actress dares speak up at one point:

     Marie-Jeanne hesitates, but then she takes the bull by the horns and voices her reservations:
     "Maybe there's too much repetition ..."
     "Too much repetition ?"
     "There's too little !"
     And the director pauses the projector and lights another cigarette. He repeats:
     "Too little, you mean ..."
       Scenes are repeatedly re-shot, and there are simple, repeated daily routines, but A Novel to Read on the Train isn't simply repetitive; with its shifts of perspective from chapter to chapter -- several of the cast-members narrate bits of the story, while there's also omniscient narration and dialogue straight out of the film -- and it's also a matter of putting the disparate pieces together; no wonder the continuity girl is frazzled and complaining. There's not much of a script to go, but the film does have a literary foundation, a novella written by the director that various characters also pick up at various points, and from which some excerpts are quoted: "It's better written than the screenplay", one character notes about it (well: "better translated, that is"); another agrees: "In fact, this novella of his isn't at all bad".
       As Blyth explains in his Preface: "the novella in question is Tsepeneag's 'Waiting,' an "oneirist" text that describes an isolated and soon-to-be disused whistle-stop". (The story has been published in English translation, in Waiting (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).)
       Much of the filming takes place in a bistro, and there's an overlap of real-life, rehearsal, and filming -- sometimes unclear even to the cast: "I can't see the boom operator. This must be a rehearsal, Yet another one !" Though "Action !" and "Cut" are repeatedly called out, film and film-making meld into a continuum. Animals have central roles, specifically a lamb and an eagle; when an eagle is not readily available, they make do with a parrot, waiting for the arrival of the eagle -- just another of the waiting games they're involved in. Later, when the freed bird has taken to the skies, it still remains elusive:
They waver for an instant and then point up at the sky, at the eagle, which is still invisible, both to the policemen and the viewer. To everybody, in fact.
       The novel can seem much like the film-in-progress being described:
     "What's with this scene ?"
     "I spliced it together. Along with a few others."
       The director's vision, of how things should be played out, mirrors that of the author. They're not looking to capture and present strict realism; their characters aren't meant to fool themselves or their audiences:
     "You're not holding anything, you're just pretending," says the director, and I get the impression that he now has less of an accent. Then, despite his griping bowels, he launches into a diatribe against realistic acting. He talks about the estrangement effect, and even though he's not very keen on Brecht, he says he still prefers him to Stravinsky.
       [It is, of course, Stanislavski that is meant here; the original French version apparently does have the correct name.]
       Near the conclusion a character admits: "I don't understand any of this" and wonders: "What kind of a film is this ?" but the warning -- or rather: guidance -- already came early on in the novel:
     "Listen, Jean. Make an effort to understand that there's nothing to understand."
     "Nothing ?"
     "Yes, nothing ..."
       This sort of thing -- a fluid, semi-recursive story, defying easy grasp -- won't be to everyone's taste. As Blyth makes clear in his Preface, it's also part of a larger project, with, for example, the two Marias figuring in both earlier and later work of Tsepeneag's, and the film itself recurring in later novels, including La Belle Roumaine ("where it will be watched by yet other characters who have escaped the control of their narrator and exerted their own separate metaphysical reality, like persons occurring in a dream"), but A Novel to Read on the Train stands and works quite well on its own -- arguably, at least on a first reading, better without concerning oneself too much with these other-literary connections (and so also I'd suggest the book would have been better served with Blyth's Preface as an Afterword -- and I'd recommend saving it until after reading the novel first).
       Tsepeneag is aware of the futility of his undertaking: as one of the characters observes: "Literature is finished, darling, nobody reads novels anymore, and if they do, then it's only beach novels. Or romans de gare, railway novels, to read on the train". Sneakily titling the novel as he does isn't much more than tilting at windmills, one thing presented in the guise of another and at best fooling a few readers to (try to) go along with it. For those who like these games, it's really quite well done -- but one does have to like these kinds of games.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 March 2022

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A Novel to Read on the Train: Other books by Dumitru Tsepeneag under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Dumitru Tsepeneag (Țepeneag) was born in 1937. He emigrated to France in 1971, and now divides his time between Paris and Bucharest.

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© 2022 the complete review

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