Delphine de Vigan: Underground Time aka Les Heures souterraines (2009)

Everyday Mathilde takes the Metro, then the commuter train to the office of a large multi-national where she works in the marketing department. Everyday, the same routine, the same trains. But something happened a while ago – she dared to voice a different opinion from her moody boss, Jacques. Bit by bit she finds herself frozen out of everything, with no work to do. Thibault is a paramedic. Everyday he drives to the addresses he receives from his controller. The city spares him no grief: traffic jams, elusive parking spaces, delivery trucks blocking his route. He is well aware that he may be the only human being many of the people he visits will see for the entire day and is well acquainted with the symptomatic illnesses, the major disasters, the hustle and bustle and, of course, the immense, pervading loneliness of the city. Before one day in May, Mathilde and Thibault had never met. They were just two anonymous figures in a crowd, pushed and shoved and pressured continuously by the loveless, urban world. “Underground Time” is a novel of quiet violence – the violence of office-bullying, the violence of the brutality of the city – in which our two characters move towards an inevitable meeting. ‘Two solitary existences cross paths in this poignant chronicle, a new testimony to de Vigan’s superb eloquence’ 

I read a review of  Delphine de Vigan’s book on Bookaroundthecorner’s Blog and really liked the tone of it. I ‘m glad I read it. It is far from cheerful but it is an important book on an important topic.

Les Heures souterraines or Underground Time is a chillingly good novel and shockingly topical. It’s accurate in its depiction of life in a corporate setting and of  life in a big city. It’s a very timely book, a book that doesn’t shy away to speak about the ugly side of  “normal lives”.
Reading the novel feels as if we secretly observed the two main protagonists, Mathilde and Thibault, at their most intimate. We follow them during the course of one day of their life. Mathilde is a single widow with three children, Thibault lives alone as well. We seem to watch them from a bird’s eye perspective and see them roam through Paris and through their lives.

Thibault is a doctor without a practice, one who makes house calls and goes from door to door where he sees a lot of misery and distress. He just left his lover and is heart-broken. He had to admit to himself that he was the one in love, she only took advantage of him.

Mathilde works for a big corporate company. She used to like her job but a few months ago she made a tiny mistake during a meeting. She dared contradict her boss and has since then become his target.  Bit by bit he wears her down, leaves her out systematically, withdraws every important project from her. He doesn’t inform her of important meetings, sets traps in order to provoke mistakes. Mathilde is at the end of her rope. She who used to be a strong person, who survived her beloved husband’s death, who raises her children on her own, who used to be a happy and succesful woman, she is about to crack, to break down. She can’t slepp anymore, she is afraid to go to work, she thinks she suffocates.

These two people should meet, they could meet, their paths cross more than once on this day.

There are many scenes I liked a lot. One of Mathilde’s little boys knows she needs all her strength and he offer’s her one of the most coveted cards of the World of Warcraft game. I liked this because World of Warcraft is a symbol for our times. It has become so important in so many people’s lives, it is a refuge, a haven to which they can escape, where they can find solace,  another life, become another person, where they feel happier than in the “real world”.

Another scene is equally good, it is the opening of the book when we are told that Mathilde went to see a psychic. The fortune-teller tells her that she will meet someone on the 20th of May, the day on which we follow her. Both scenes show us how utterly vulnerable Mathilde is. She doesn’t know how to get out of this mess.

How is this day going to end? Is Mathilde going to overcome her difficulties? How will Thibault handle all the disasters and sadness he has to face on this day? Will they meet?

I’m afraid, if you want to find out, you will have to read this novel. Don’t hesitate, it is excellent. It was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and would have been a worthy winner. It talks about things we’d rather not talk about. The loneliness in big cities, the isolation, the struggle of modern life, the hassle to commute, the abuse of power in the work place, mobbing, the inhumanity in big companies. The novel also shows that one of the most important elements is to talk about your problems, to address them, to seek help. And you have to go to the right place. Your colleagues will not help, they are afraid, the Human Resources won’t help, they follow their own agenda. The book sadly also shows that it can be too late. People can get so tired and worn out, they simply cannot fight anymore, they despair, feel terribly ashamed and give up.

It was good to read such a well written book about things that many of us have to struggle with on a daily basis.

I’d like to add one more thing on abuse of power and mobbing. The big difference is that abuse of power is a top-down thing, while mobbing is something that is done on the same level. Both are harmful and if anyone should be ashamed, it’s the people who do it. If you want to fight it, both are equally hard to handle but I think it would be a bit easier to get help if you are a mobbing victim. Nowadays big companies have special services who deal with this kind of stuff.

32 thoughts on “Delphine de Vigan: Underground Time aka Les Heures souterraines (2009)

  1. I put in an order with just the other day, ahd actually hesitated over whether I should try a Delphine de Vigan novel. Now I wish I had! I’ll put this one on the wish list for the next trip I make there.

    • I can really recommend her. It’s a timely book, engaging and very well written. I think she has written a few other interesting novels too, one has been made into a movie I believe.

  2. Hello
    I’m glad you liked it. My colleague read it too and we talked about it a few days ago. She was also terribly moved by Mathilde. Just this conversation brought back the emotion I felt while reading it, probably because it’s easy to identify with Mathilde. She feels real.

    I don’t know World of Warcraft, I missed that reference but what touched me is that her child tries to protect her. It shows how shattered she is. A child shouldn’t feel the urge to protect his mother, but children are care taker. Mine gave me a box of kisses so that I can have my good-night kiss when I’m away for work. I can easily imagine them giving me such a card if they felt me in danger.

    Les Heures Souterraines is really powerful and so true to life. After reading it and What Maisie Knew, I needed to breathe and read fun and light books. Both books reached something in me.

    I’d like to add for all the people who will read this post that this book was necessary. I’m glad that a writer could picture so well how life is in a multi-national company and how violent working can be. I haven’t read many contemporary books that tell a good story and describe a social problem with so well. I could only think of Germinal by Zola. I wish she had won the Prix Goncourt instead of Marie Ndyaie because more people would have read it.

    • It’s fantastic book and I’m glad you introduced me to it. It’s atouching story, bot people are touching, mathile a bit more as we read more about her. The World of warcraft struck me as it is also so timely,. there are people who need treatment because tey are addicted to World of Warcraft, the online game I mean. The story with the box with te kisses is so cute. What a swet little boy you have. I guess children are care takers.
      I agree it is an important book. Annette Pehnt a German writer who writes very topical novels too has written one on Mobbing. I haven’t read it yet and know it hasn’t been translated into English but amybe French.
      Corporate Companies are often hell because of people. The pressure plus nasty people is a fatal combination. It’s so sad that mostly no one will help you when you are in such a situation.

      • I need to research World of Warcraft, I feel like an outdated old lady.
        Annette Pehnt hasn’t been translated into French and my German isn’t good enough. (let’s focus on speaking and reading English properly first)

        About companies : You forgot the EBITDA centric attitude that can lead to crazy decisions. (more of this when I review Company by Max Barry)Nowadays management methods promote team spirit but create very selfish behaviours because everyone fears to be sacked.

        PS : about the box of kisses: they did it together and check that it’s in my suitcase before I leave. James’s Maisie is a care taker too.

        • Maybe it isn’t so popular in France. It’s extremely popular in Switzerland, Germany and the anglophone countries. It got quite some media coverage lately and that’s when I wanted to know what it is about. I could imagine how you can get sucked into a game like that. Annette Pehnt is one of the best authors writing in German right now and it’s surprising no one seems want to tranlstate her. I have afeeling that Corporate Compnaies, because they are so huge, allow more dysfunctional poeple. The boss I had problems with was a real psycho. And I still hear and see things I can hardly believe. People are slefish and scared. But that’s where they are wrong. When evyrbody sticks together, not even a nasty boss has a chance. They cannot fire the whole group. I’m looking forward to your barry review. But I liked Delphine de Vigan because it isn’t humurous. there are so many books out there now who make fun of the Corporate Setting but in the end it isn’t fun at all. Some people loose health and sanity. I’m glad she wrote about it in a serious way.
          Both children are cute. 🙂

          • I suppose it’s well-known in France too. It’s more that I don’t play video games and I know no one who does. (although I’m from the same generation as Max.) I’m not interested. Btw, reading and blogging are addictive too, you know.

            Strange that Annette Pehnt hasn’t been translated into French if she’s so good. It’s really really rare that I look for a book and realize there’s no French version. (It happened twice this month though, as Max Barry’s Company hasn’t been translated either.)

            I’m sure they can fire a whole group if it seems made of strong and solidary persons.

            I agree with you, I liked that book because it was serious but not openly militant. It’s still a novel but Mathilde is an example and a convincing one.

            • You can get addicted to almost everything, I agree. I know a few people who play games that’ why I asked and was then told wht it is and so on and so fort but got bored after trying a few times. I’m also very bad at it.
              There are a few very good German writers that were not translated into French. It isn’t very clear how this works.
              I’m readingless at the moment because I want to review but it’s silly, I feel I miss out as I like German literature a lot. I found de Vigan’s book could have been written by a German writer. The style isn’t very French.

  3. I read this review while I was riding on the bus and I really like it, both your review and the premise of the book. Mathilde sounds like a great character

    What intrigued me beside the story was your description on War of The Craft, is it really that important?

    • The book is wonderful and she is a great character. World of Warcraft is a cult. Just google World of Warcraft and you will be astonished. I actually bought and registered for a month or so because I wanted to know what the fuss was all about and it is really scary. I’m not a game person, so I was pretty safe but there are people who cannot differentiate between reality and WoW anymore. You create your own persona, looks, achacter and all and peole are playing with you in real time, you can chat about the game in parallel.

  4. That moment with the child and the card sounds heartbreaking. I’m actually pretty familiar with World of Warcraft (which is a computer game so not sure how a collectible card comes up – possibly an error or possibly there’s a card game tie-in) but it’s clearly not the game that’s the point. It’s the child’s attempt to help with the tools at its disposal.

    It’s very definitely on my radar this. Nice to see another review of it.

    • It seems as if World of Warcraft – I’ didn’t know this before I read the book – has become a card game now as well and children collect them. I agree, the emphasis is on the child who wants to help the mother but I think Delphine the Vigan didn’t choose the game by chance.
      It is an author worth discovering. I was interested when I read Bookaroundthecorner’s review but it was even better than I thought it would be.

  5. Great review, Caroline. I haven’ read anything in French for a while, so will probably order this. It’s much nicer to read something in the original language, although there are some good translations out there.

    My stepson plays World of Warcraft and says it’s addictive. I do think it can turn into an escape from real life.

    • Thanks, Mrs Pearl. I agree, it’s nicer in the original language. World of Warcraft seems very addictive. I think Mathilde isn’t aware of the whole implication but the author was. She has so many little details in the book that show how hard and cold life has become.

  6. World of Warcraft is addictive in the same way a good tv series is addictive, or a series of novels that you love. It’s a game. People enjoy playing it. That’s the only addiction that’s typically going on. The rest is mostly media scare stories that tend to be pretty innacurate.

    It’s not a game I play but only because it’s subscription based and to get real value for money you’d want to be playing it more than is realistic if you have a full time job. Were I still a teenager though I’m sure I’d play it.

    One of the things noticeable in the UK actually is that my generation and younger, who grew up with computer games, see them as another medium of entertainment like any other. Those in politics and the media though still tend to be older and view them with suspicion. The result is a public discourse that bears no resemblance to the actual games. It’s odd.

    That said, de Vigan’s clearly done her research. I didn’t know there was a collectible card game based on WoW but it makes sense and the kid’s emphasis on an important card makes sense too. It’s reassuring. If that’s right other things likely are too.

    • Maybe it’s a media thing. I read a few interesting documentaries, a person who had to undegro treatment. I could imagine, if you don’t work, you could really spend a lot of time and the realities could get blurred. I was glad that I’m not a gamer as I love fantasy, so I could see the appeal. I agree, it’s a new form, people can get very addicted to TV and what not, no doubt. I got scared or rather spooked when I realized that people really saw “me” and invited or challenged me.

  7. We got this in at work and I was very tempted by the blurb. But I thought looked a little depressing.
    I may come back to it at some point, especially after your review.

    • It is sad, there is no doubt about that. And since it is very realistic, although not based on a true story, it could be depressing to read. I still like it a lot, it has something that is so true and says so much about the world we live in.

  8. Didn’t someone die playing World of Warcraft (I know many people who are addicted to it)?

    I want to read this too. It won’t be released in N. America until later this year.

    • I’m not sure about someone dying but the person or persons in Switzerland needed treatment, they were in very bad shape. That’s always so odd, that the release isn’t at the same time in all the English speaking countries but I guess the rights and marketing strategies are different.
      I’ll be curious how you will like it. It is certainly very different from Max Barry. There is a lot to make fun of in corporate companies but there is also a lot of sadness.

  9. A very fine review. This sounds like a fascinating book, well written and with a topical subject. I wonder if I could persuade the publishers to send me a review copy . . .

    • Just the parts about commuting are so spot on. I do not have to do this now but when I was living in Paris I had an flat fro a while that was just a bit outside…. The métro can be anightmare. When it turns up, and more often when it doesn’t .
      I really wish there would be more books like this. I would say she has achieved a rare thing, writing a modern novel, about all the issues of modern life, that feels absolutely effortless. .

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  13. I cannot help but sympathize with Mathilde. I too, became an unfortunate victim of the company I served for 25 years when the son took over part of the father’s responsibilities. When he came on board, he had with him, a group of loyal staff whom he only trusted. His father had faith in my capabilities but the son never saw anything good about my work. My areas of responsibilities became smaller and smaller. My “wings were insultingly clipped” and I was relegated to handling just 2 staff (from 15) and without a permanent office. I took everything in stride until I was suddenly replaced by an inexperienced Manager who had no background in the industry we were in. After a year of swallowing my pride, I resigned. I left a company that I loved very much but who I thought, did not love me back after the re-organization.

    • I’m very sorry to hear you had such a painful experience. It sounds awful. Good for you for resigning. It’s obviously even worse when you really love a company.
      I hope you’re doing fine now.
      The book is well done and so important. I’ve experienced bullying from an abusive boss myself. It’s very hard to take.

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