I’ve said for a long time that it’s dangerous to make a novelist or poet the central character of your novel. Mostly I thought it was because the character can never be a better writer than you are. Now I see a new danger: Tatiana deRosnay’s Nicholas Kolt has not only allowed himself to be corrupted by success, his success is based on writing too close to his own life. And now we must wonder how close deRosnay’s life is to any of her novels.
I guess she’s done a decent job of writing from a man’s point of view. I’m not as good a judge of that as I am of the opposite situation. She’s certainly succeeded in the stereotype of a Frenchman who sees women almost entirely as objects and almost entirely as they have value, or not, to him. But she hasn’t succeeded in making me want the kind of success that Nicholas Kolt has. Structurally, The Other Story covers just three days in the life of this young and handsome overnight success. He is extending his enjoyment of his new life in a weekend at an exclusive resort on an Italian island in July 2011.
The three sections of the novel identified by those three days reflect no limits on the story, however. We flash back to Nicholas’s boyhood, then back and forth through the whirlwind year since his then girlfriend got her publisher friend to read the manuscript Nicholas had written in a passion at her kitchen table. It’s very difficult to keep track of what’s going on, or frankly of the participants in his story. It’s told mostly from Nicholas’s point of view, but jumps into other heads – for a paragraph or a whole chapter – without warning or clear directional signals. There are also whole plot points that may or may not be all within Nicholas’s imagination. And yes, that’s the imagination he is not using to write his second novel.
This is not deRosnay’s first, or even second, novel, but it is the one that identifies her as “the author of Sarah’s Key.” That novel at least offered readers insights into the occupation of France during World War II. This one dabbles with an oddity of French citizenship law, though it is characterized as “new” without orienting us to what that means, and with Soviet history, but not much of that. DeRosnay includes several Russian sources in her acknowledgments, and all the Russian names that come up in the story appear in her memorial to her grandmother. There’s a second memorial, to an uncle, that on reflection also seems to have a little too much in common with the fictional novelist’s family history that formed the basis of his novel and appears to be the hurdle he cannot get past to find his second work.
Of course, he does get over the hurdle, at the cost of an improbable cruise-ship disaster, with touching fatalities, and the inexplicable breakdown of the feeling that the resort is just the home of dear friends with an extensive and obsequious staff, even though it was overrun on Saturday with a swimsuit photo shoot, providing plentiful ogling for our hero. Nicholas, predictably, suddenly finds his humanity and almost everyone else loses theirs. But it’s clear that Nicholas has only finally tumbled to the “other story” in his father’s background, and his second novel will be as derivative as his first.
What I most dislike about Nicholas’s story as devised by deRosnay, however, is not the derivation from her life and family. It is rather the picture she paints of the writing life and the publishing world, and even of her own culture. It fits all too well the antiquated stereotypes that belong better in an episode of something like “Mad Men.” Nicholas is wholly unconcerned with art, or exploring the human condition, or any of the things that we writers hope drive us, especially when writing outside of tightly bounded genres.
In less than a year, Nicholas has written his book at the kitchen table of someone who just happens to know a publisher. The publisher reads the manuscript in three hours and signs Nicholas to a contract that evening. International editions follow, driving an equally international book tour. Movie rights are sold, the movie made, and an Oscar awarded to the actor who plays the heroine. Though the timing gets a bit unclear, it appears that all of this happens within another year. Yes, publication to Oscar in less than a year.
Nicholas is so self-absorbed that, when the greatest publisher in the world, one Dagmar Hunoldt, turns up at the resort, he’s sure that she’s there to lure him away from the woman who made all this possible (his publisher, not the owner of the kitchen table). Assuming that she is obsessed with him, he becomes obsessed with her and with discerning and beating her at her game. Frankly, though, I didn’t care. I’ve been in the publishing world, albeit not at Nicholas Kolt’s level, and this is total fiction. Name one publisher who’s ever appeared in People Magazine. Name one publisher, period, unless you’re in the publishing world (but then you know how silly this is). Actually, because Nicholas so well fits the self-centered stereotype of a Frenchman, and especially of French culturati, I have a wide range of places to put the blame, and none of them matter much to me.
I suppose I could generously hope that all this glamor, wealth, and intrigue is as closely derived from deRosnay’s own experience as the writer of Sarah’s Key. But I can’t find myself any more glad to have read her “other story” than I would wish to read Nicholas Kolt’s. It seems that it’s just as risky to write about a lucky hack as to write about a great writer. I do hope that the book underwent a thorough editing since the advance copy I read, so that it reads less like a translation from the French. But really, it’s all about the French, so why bother?