Thierry Dancourt: Hôtel de Lausanne (2008) French Prize For First Novel

Au cimetière du Trocadéro, un homme et une femme s’assoient sur un banc. Le vent souffle, elle n’arrive pas à allumer sa cigarette, ils entament la conversation. Elle s’appelle Christine, vit un peu hors du temps, entre un père obsédé par les mappemondes et un fiancé qui semble ne pas beaucoup compter. Lui, Daniel, parcourt le monde à la recherche d’objets anciens. Entre eux se noue une relation à part, clandestine, dans un Paris enneigé et brumeux. Du XVIe arrondissement à Casablanca, une galerie de portraits se dessine, mais une figure domine, entre ombre et lumière, celle, singulière et attachante, de Christine Stretter.

A man and a woman meet at the cemetery du Trocadéro in Paris. She tries to light a cigarette but the wind and the rain are too strong. They start to talk as if they had known each other forever. Christine lives outside of our daily world between a father obsessed with maps and  a fiancé who is never there. Daniel is an antiquarian and travels the world. They will start to meet in hotels all over Paris and in the province.

Dancourt won the French prize for first novel and I am pretty sure he will be translated. This little book is far too wonderful and will be highly appreciated by people everywhere as it is also an homage to the city of Paris. Without knowing it ( I looked it up later) I knew that Dancourt is not a Parisian. Parisians do not render their city so lovingly. Only people from abroad and the homesick ones who live in other countries would describe it with such great detail.

Reading this filled me with a terrible longing. Missing a city is not much better than missing a person. On the other hand, the Paris of this book has an otherworldly quality and charm that the struggle of daily life, commuting etc. destroys sooner or later. This is the Paris we love to dream about, the town we would love to live in if we did not have to go to work every day.

Hôtel de Lausanne tells also a very lovely story in the typical French manner of not revealing too much. The people in this novel keep their mystery until the very end. We can only assume why they do this or that, it is never explained or analyzed.

Christine is engaged when she meets Daniel and even though their relationship is very profound and magical she still gets married to her fiancé as she always wanted to get married very young (she is only 21). The funny thing, even though this feels wrong on a logical level, it feels right emotionally. One has never the feeling of reading a book about an adulterous woman. And one never questions her choice. I never even wondered why she wasn’t getting married to Daniel if they were so close.

I liked this aura of mystery that encloses the people and the many descriptions of Paris, its little cafés and bars. Those typical little cafés no tourist would ever go to but where the people living close by, the so-called  “habitués” will come every day, drink and eat and chat. Village-like coziness of big cities where you end up staying in your quartier unless you go to work. Christine and Daniel have their favourite places, where people know them and treat them like a couple and where they occasionally also meet someone who knew Christine’s mother. A haunting figure of whom we try to catch a glimpse as hard as Christine tries herself.

Hôtel de Lausanne is a very enchanting novel and I will certainly read more of Dancourt (his second novel Jardin d’hiver has just been published). As stated before I am pretty confident this will be translated. It simply has to.