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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Company of Ghosts

Lydie Salvayre

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To purchase The Company of Ghosts

Title: The Company of Ghosts
Author: Lydie Salvayre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 184 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Company of Ghosts - US
The Company of Ghosts - UK
The Company of Ghosts - Canada
La compagnie des spectres - Canada
Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers - Canada
La compagnie des spectres - France
Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers - France
Das Gewicht der Erinnerung - Deutschland
  • Includes Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers (Quelques conseils utiles aux élèves huissiers)
  • French title: La compagnie des spectres
  • Translated and with a Preface by Christopher Woodall

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever, effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Freitag . 26/11/1999 Stefanie Christmann
The Guardian . 14/1/2006 Jane Housham
L'Humanité A 12/9/1997 Alain Nicolas
Independent on Sunday . 15/1/2006 Laurence Phelan
London Rev. of Books . 26/1/2006 Lorna Scott Fox
The Spectator . 3/1/1998 Anita Brookner
TLS . 3/2/2006 Micha Lazarus
Die Welt . 17/7/1999 Karen Fuchs
Die Welt . 14/6/2003 Viola Roggenkamp

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ein atemloser Roman, wie geschaffen zur Dramatisierung für ein Zimmertheater. (...) Der in Frankreich preisgekrönte Roman von Lydie Salvayre macht vieles erlebbar, worüber vor allem in Deutschland zu wenig nachgedacht wird." - Stefanie Christmann, Freitag

  • "Eighteen-year-old Louisiane, narrator of this intense, claustrophobic novel, bears little resemblance to most adolescents. (...) This verbose three-hander twists itself into a tornado climax." - Jane Housham, The Guardian

  • "De singulières et fortes questions aux frontières du littéraire, du politique et du moral se posent dès lors au lecteur imprudent. Tous les ingrédients sont réunis pour un livre douloureux et aride. Le tour de force de l’auteur est d’en faire un objet d’une invention et d’une drôlerie inattendue" - Alain Nicolas, L'Humanité

  • "A depressing, claustrophobic story, then, but it's enlivened by some mordant humour and the narrator's soaring display of verbal acrobatics." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday

  • "Salvayre's satire deals in exaggeration rather than ambiguity, the hilarities of conflict and disgust rather than the blandness of empathy: everyone in this book is frightful. Though she applies the Freudian rule that to name an evil is to exorcise it, Salvayre the psychiatrist is not a moral relativist." - Lorna Scott Fox, London Review of Books

  • "Lydie Salvayre's tone is captured in a fluent translation, but at the centre of the novel is the simple necessity of speech which cuts through the regimes of silence. (...) Like all polemic works, however, The Company of Ghosts risks redundancy once its argument has been accepted, and does not offer much plot to distract us." - Micha Lazarus, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Die Übersetzung kann nicht alle Nuancen erfassen und deren soziale Implikationen nur ahnen lassen. Um so stärker wird sich der deutsche Leser auf die Dramaturgie, die zeitkritischen Bez¨ge konzentrieren. Da operiert Salvayre weniger elegant. Zu didaktisch und absichtsvoll baut sie die Erzählung der Mutter auf. Wann immer die Autorin fürchten muß, dem Leser mangele es an historischen Kenntnissen, reicht sie eilfertig Informationen." - Karen Fuchs, Die Welt

  • "Der Roman beginnt mitten drin in seiner Geschichte. Das ist die Logik aller Erzählungen, wo sie anfangen, ist dem zu Erzählenden schon viel vorausgegangen. Mit dem ersten Satz nimmt die Erzählerin, die Tochter Louisiane, das Gespräch zu uns nicht auf, sondern sie führt es einfach weiter. Sie befindet sich in einem nicht abreißenden inneren Monolog, den sie gegen das sich unablässig wiederholende Erzählen der Mutter gesetzt hat." - Viola Roggenkamp, Die Welt

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:

       The Company of Ghosts is a novel, but its greatest strength is in its presentation. It is almost fiction as stage-play: a few characters, a small set, a lot of talk, and what action there is unfolding in real time. But it is driven by monologues rather than action, and though the characters act in response to the actions of the others, their interaction is largely beyond any semblance of normality -- this is no longer, on any level, social interaction --, each pressing forward in their own way with an almost ferocious and determined consistency.
       The situation is an unusual and stressful one: a process-server has come to the apartment of Rose Mélie and her eighteen year old daughter, Louisiane, for the purposes of taking an inventory of their belongings so that those of any value can be sold off to pay off the monies they owe (in this case, several month's back rent). (This sort of seizing of property is common in Europe; the American equivalent -- seizure by the sheriff and/or the repo man -- doesn't involve quite the same bureaucratic rigmarole and protracted procedures. Indeed, part of the dramatic tension in the novel arises from the fact that this is merely a preliminary step -- the taking of an inventory -- rather than the actual seizure, which would only follow at a later date.)
       Matters are further complicated by the fact that Rose Mélie is quite clearly not in her right mind, and that Louisiane, who is basically in charge of the household (and her mother) is ill-equipped to deal with this situation. It is Louisiane who narrates the novel, but much of her narrative repeats her mother's rantings -- much of which includes stories she's heard countless times before, focussed mainly on some the horrors under the Vichy government in World War II (led by the Hitler-satrap, Pétain).
       Louisiane is emotionally and sexually immature, with almost no friends and little real-life experience. Her world is dominated by her mother, and her mother is a demanding and crippled soul. Over the course of the novel, Rose Mélie's condition becomes clearer and clearer. She is deluded, believing that the process-server is a representative of the detested collaborationist government, and, more generally, that the world is still as it was in the early 1940s, dominated by those who sided with (or at least) accepted the Nazis. She refuses to accept that the world has changed, arguing that it has not come to terms with what happened (and what people did). She refuses to even read any books from after World War II ("all literature written after 1940 is detestable"). It is Rose Mélie who has not come to terms with the past -- for good reason, as some of the stories she relates make clear -- but her uncompromising certitude make for a convincing moral authority that give resonance to her rantings (though the two people she addresses here remain clearly unimpressed). She is both noble and pathetic.
       This mother is a heavy burden for Louisiane. She's heard the same story all her life, and in the present situation in particular the absurdity of clinging to the past in this way is almost overwhelming: "This whole thing is ancient history, it's time to change the record." Louisiane is itching for a bit of romance in her life, or even just plain normal teenage fun, but her situation doesn't allow it. She opens up to the process-server -- about this and everything -- , and even tries to flirt a bit with him, but it's typical of her understanding of life: the process-server, a good little bureaucrat, has only one thing on his mind, and that is getting his job done.
       The process-server, the third figure here, is another unusual presence. Louisiane addresses him much of the time, but he is almost completely unresponsive. He goes about his business, regardless of what the mother and daughter say (or yell), only occasionally speaking up -- to ask when a particular item was purchased, for example.
       The dynamics among this odd trio, each in a world of their own yet also reacting to one another, is quite remarkable (and fairly enjoyable). But while this dramatic (inter)play makes for much of the literary enjoyment of the text, there's also considerable substance here. Rose Mélie's concerns are very real, her refusal to accept the world as it is but rather to see it only as a refracted version of the past has a certain validity. The process-server is a representative of a legalistic but arguably immoral world-order; he's only doing his job, but arguably he (and what he represents) are only a different degree of evil, the ultimate consequences of which are -- so Rose Mélie -- no better than what took place in the Second World War. Louisiane suffers for her mother's delusional idealism, and remains -- against her will -- a different sort of innocent; she's also not of this contemporary world, kept safe, in a perverse way, by her mother's insanity..
       (Also included in this volume is the shorter piece, Some Useful Advice for Apprentice Process-Servers, in which the process-server also addresses the events recounted in the book -- offering a slightly different take. Salvayre's command over tone -- in the what amount to monologues of Louisiane, Rose Mélie, and, in this appendix, the process-server, is quite stunning, and especially in the latter nicely (because also not too obviously) drives home her message of the numbing, dangerous power of the bureaucratic state.)
       The Company of Ghosts is, in turn, horrific and hilarious, satire for once done completely differently. It's an often uncomfortable book -- Rose Mélie is an unpleasant and unpredictable character, and the situations described are, for the most part, ugly ones -- but a profound one. Form reinforces content, making for a powerful punch.
       Quite remarkable.

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The Company of Ghosts: 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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© 2005-2009 the complete review

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